When human health affects environmental health

OHSU StudentSpeak is pleased to present this guest post by M.S. student Brittany Cummings, a 2016–17 Robert E. Malouf Fellow funded by Oregon Sea Grant. She is pursuing a master’s in environmental science and engineering under the guidance of Tawnya Peterson, Ph.D., assistant professor, and Joseph Needoba, Ph.D., associate professor, both with the Institute of Environmental Health. The article originally appeared in Confluence, an Oregon Sea Grant publication.

Oregon Sea Grant scholar Brittany  Cummings samples Columbia River water to determine metformin levels. (Photo by Claudia Tausz, OHSU)
Oregon Sea Grant scholar Brittany Cummings samples Columbia River water to determine metformin levels. (Photo by Claudia Tausz, OHSU)

I am an Oregon Sea Grant-funded scholar who has been given the wonderful opportunity to attend the Institute of Environmental Health at OHSU in Portland.

Marine science at a school of medicine? That’s right! My research is based on the idea that our environment becomes unhealthy when its inhabitants are unhealthy. Under this guiding principle, my colleagues and I are trying to determine the concentration of the antidiabetic drug metformin and its main breakdown product, guanylurea, in the surface water and sewage effluent of the lower Columbia River basin. Since spring 2016, we have been collecting water samples at various points along the lower Columbia. We have also enlisted the help of volunteers from Columbia Riverkeeper to collect additional samples.

Metformin, also known as Glucophage, is a commonly prescribed drug for Type 2 diabetes. Taken orally, it lowers glucose levels in the blood without being metabolized. In other words, it simply does its job then passes through the body. Considered a “contaminant of emerging concern” (CEC), metformin has been shown to disrupt the endocrine systems of fathead minnows. The drug is prevalent in the Puget Sound, according to a 2016 study. Researchers detected 81 CECs in effluent from two sewage treatment plants there and found that metformin topped the list in terms of concentration and amount discharged per day.

My colleagues and I aim to find out if a similar situation is true in the Columbia River. Our research follows on the heels of a previous Oregon Sea Grant-funded exploratory study, conducted by Tawnya Peterson and Joseph Needoba at OHSU, which detected metformin in the lower Columbia River. But now we hope to expand on that. In addition to determining the concentration of metformin and guanylurea, we plan to explore how light and microbes might break down these two compounds. We will also study the potential toxicity of these chemicals by looking at how they might affect phytoplankton, the foundation of the aquatic food web. We hope our findings will ultimately be used to develop strategies for reducing metformin in the river and to help the public and policymakers understand the drug’s potential risk to wildlife, including salmon.

For the outreach component of the project, I have been explaining my research at “Meet a Scientist” events at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where I explore concepts of aquatic toxicology sampling through a hands-on demonstration with youth and adults. In addition, I’m looking forward to talking about my work while teaching a class about healthy rivers through Saturday Academy, which offers classes and camps for students in the Portland area.

I find this project particularly compelling due to the potential for positive change in humans and our environment—two passions that I find impossible to separate. By making simple changes in our lifestyles, like exercising and eating healthier, we can reduce the incidence of Type 2 diabetes and decrease metformin’s possible threat to the Columbia River watershed.