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Water Watch: Chemistry students test river for nitrate levels

Jacob Zuckerman | Sep 29, 2016
Chris Frazier, left, and Nate Frazier, right, worked with faculty member Shadi Abu-Baker, center, to study water quality in Ohio.
Chris Frazier, left, and Nate Frazier, right, worked with faculty member Shadi Abu-Baker, center, to study water quality in Ohio. Photo credit: Christine Shaw

Nothing causes panic like a water problem in a major city. For two Ohio University students, a recent nitrate advisory in the Columbus area gave them a chance to test their scientific research skills on a real-world problem.

Chris and Nate Frazier were students in Shadi Abu-Baker’s general chemistry class at the Ohio University Zanesville campus when the issue of regional water safety made news. The brothers joined Abu-Baker in the field to measure nitrate levels in the Muskingum River.

“Nitrate is a major component in commercial fertilizers used in crops and agriculture going along the river ways down there (the southeastern Ohio area),” Nate Frazier says. “It actually can mess with the plants and the fish populations and the ecosystem as a whole.”

According to the World Health Organization, nitrate runoff into drinking water can cause adverse health effects for humans, especially infants and the elderly. Nitrate in the water has been in the spotlight after the city of Columbus issued its June 2015 advisory.

By comparing their findings to a 2011 EPA report on the water quality of the river, the Fraziers confirmed that the water was fit for human consumption after regular treatment by the city.

Besides conducting legitimate research on a pressing issue, both brothers used the work as a learning experience.

“I found it’s a lot different than what you would think,” Chris Frazier says. “When you think of doing chemistry, you don’t see a lot of the actual applications. Physically getting the water samples and seeing how it relates to reality and the practicality of it really helps you understand it more.”

Nate Frazier agrees.

“One of the good things about research is it combines all the knowledge that you’ve learned so far,” he says. “There’s some chemistry mixed into it, but you also have to understand some physics, some biology as well.”

The Fraziers are working to finish their degrees while continuing research opportunities. In August 2016, the students and their mentor published findings from their project in the scientific journal Green and Sustainable Chemistry. In addition, Abu-Baker has received funding from Ohio University’s 1804 Fund to allow more Zanesville students to participate in water quality testing research.