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Northeastern University

Superfund Research Program

Dynamic Transport and Exposure Pathways of Contaminants in Karst Groundwater Systems

Project Leader: Ingrid Y. Padilla (University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez)
Grant Number: P42ES017198
Funding Period: 2010-2025
View this project in the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT)

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Project Summary (2014-2020)

This project studies the fate and transport of Superfund-related organic contaminants and the processes controlling their mobility, persistence, distribution, and paths toward potential exposures and/or remediation zones in karst groundwater systems. The project’s specific aims are directed at characterizing fate and transport processes and concentration distributions of contaminants in karst groundwater systems typified by variable conduit and/or diffusion dominated flow, as those found in northern Puerto Rico. This region is the focal area of PROTECT’s work to study exposure to Superfund hazardous chemicals and their potential contribution to high rates of preterm birth in Puerto Rico, which are the highest among U.S. jurisdictions, second only to Malawi globally. The project focuses on chlorinated volatile organic compounds (CVOCs) and phthalates as model contaminants because they are ubiquitous and have been shown to have potential health impacts. The research builds on the physical, data, and collaborative research infrastructure developed by the investigators during the first three years of the project.

Karst groundwater systems, which provide more than 40 percent of the groundwater used for drinking in the United States, develop in soluble rocks, such as limestone and dolomites. Flow in these systems may occur through fractures, conduits, and the rock matrix. In such systems, conduits can concentrate water and contaminants from direct sources and/or diffuse flow and convey them rapidly to potential-exposure discharge points such as springs. They can also convey contaminants to “trapping” diffuse-flow zones, which can result in long-term storage and subsequent release of contaminants. Developing the ability to assess and predict contaminant transport and potential exposure to contaminants in this type of aquifers is essential to understanding and preventing health effects stemming from contaminants in the groundwater.

This project characterizes and quantifies the factors affecting fate and transport of contaminants in karst systems. Using experimental data and field measurements, spatiotemporal contaminant distributions and transport properties are being characterized, quantified, and statistically modeled. Fundamental knowledge developed from hydraulic and transport experiments in laboratory-scale models is integrated into field-scale measurements and tracer tests through the use of geostatistical methods. At the field scale, contaminant concentrations in groundwater wells and springs in the karst system of northern Puerto Rico are measured during wet and dry seasons. Field-scale models are populated with historical contamination, water quality, and hydrogeologic data from the karst groundwater of northern Puerto Rico, and used to describe spatial and temporal changes in contaminant distribution, providing the ability to predict potential dynamic exposure to contaminants in karst groundwater systems and establish strategies to protect public health.

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