Legacy & Emerging Contaminants

Contaminants of concern to humans and wildlife often make their way into NYS waters due to natural processes or human activities. Many of these contaminants are labeled as “legacy” due to a firmly established body of research spanning decades on aspects relating to their prevalence, transport, and transformation in the environment. These include heavy metals such as mercury (Hg) and lead (Pb), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and organochlorine pesticides, which are synthetic organic chemicals often released from industrial or agricultural processes, and disinfection by-products (DBPs), compounds that form upon disinfection of water to make it safe for consumption. “Emerging” contaminants are compounds that have historically been unmonitored, unregulated, and (to an extent) unknown, but have come to the forefront of research in recent years due in part to improved technological capabilities and to apparent indications of risk to public health. Examples include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), novel pesticides, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and microplastics. The release, transport, transformation, and toxicity of these contaminants and many others causes significant health, economic, and environmental impacts, making them a problem at the regional, national, and even global levels. WRI is involved in conducting and funding research and outreach projects into the source, transport, fate, and remediation of legacy and emerging contaminants in NYS waters. 

Research Goals

  • Effectively monitor legacy contaminants and identify the prevalence and severity of emerging contaminants in aquatic ecosystems with a focus on source and finished drinking water.
  • Investigate mitigation and remediation strategies for removal of contaminants in source and drinking water.
  • Identify and assess the conditions and environmental stressors within a watershed (e.g., extreme weather events, introduction of invasive species, interactions among micropollutants) that influence the transport, transformation, and toxicity of contaminants in source and drinking waters.
  • Analyze and evaluate the connections between access to safe drinking water and community demographics (e.g., race, income, and housing).

Outreach Goals

  • Create research summaries to effectively communicate the findings of WRI to local communities, municipalities, and state and local government agencies. This can be in the form of resource lists (see example here), fact sheets (see examples here and here), and short communications (see example here).
  • Synthesize the research findings to create ArcGIS StoryMaps (see examples here and here) that can be shared with the staff of state and federal agencies. StoryMaps can be used to: 1) create an effective means of outreach on topics of great concern (e.g., leadPFAS, and 1,4-dioxane in water) to stakeholders; and 2) shed the light on crucial water quality issues that face underprivileged and underserved communities; and 3) justify the potential upgrade of aging water and wastewater infrastructure across the state.

Diversity Equity Inclusion/ Environmental Justice

  • Incorporate a DEI/EJ lens into staff and intern projects relating to contaminants in and safe access to drinking water.
  • Include the findings on DEI/EJ into relevant outreach materials and disseminate the results to the stakeholders.

Select Projects & Publications

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS): A NYS Overview

MAY 24, 2023

Rassil Sayess and Brian G. Rahm, WRI (Original October 1st, 2020).

Characterization and Drivers of Haloacetic Acids in New York State

FEB 5, 2023

Sayess, R. and Steinschneider, S., 2023. AWWA Water Science, 5(1), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1321

Assessment of Haloacetic Acids (HAAs) in NYS: Mapping and Analysis of the Fourth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 4)

MAR 28, 2022

Under the Fourth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 4), the USEPA has collected national data on the sum of 9 HAAs (HAA9), including the sum of regulated HAAs (HAA5) and the sum of brominated HAAs (HAA6Br) from public water systems (PWS) between 2018 and 2021 13 . The results presented here are an analysis of the HAA UCMR 4 dataset with a focus on New York State (NYS).
Rassil Sayess (WRI), Brian G. Rahm (WRI), and Scott Steinschneider (BEE).

Short Communication: Is SARS-CoV-2, the Virus Causing COVID-19, Present and Viable in Raw and in Partially-Treated Sewage?

JAN 22, 2021

Rassil Sayess, Kristen C. Hychka, and Brian G. Rahm (WRI) (Original May 22, 2020).

Wastewater Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2: a Resource List

OCT 1, 2020

This document includes numerous resources on SARS-CoV-2 in water and wastewater, with a focus on wastewater surveillance. It includes links to fact sheets, websites, testing methodology, Slack channel, webinars, and funding opportunities related to this topic.
Rassil Sayess (WRI).

Staying Ahead of the Curve: Wastewater Surveillance for Monitoring COVID-19 Outbreaks in New York State

SEP 25, 2020

One method for community level monitoring of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is wastewater surveillance – a powerful and relatively inexpensive informational tool that can provide data on how the virus is circulating within a community. This short communication explores the possibilities and limitations of wastewater surveillance for SARS-CoV-2.

Kristen Hychka (WRI), Rassil Sayess (WRI), Brian Rahm (WRI), Meredith Perreault (Syracuse University - Environmental Finance Center), and Khris Dodson (Syracuse University - Environmental Finance Center)