Cigarettes may affect water flea heartbeatsThe cigarette butts floating on Chester Creek disgusted Benedicth Ukhueduan. “There was this section of it that just had cigarette butts, just on top of it,” said Ukhueduan, a freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “It was just sick, and I wonder how toxic it is.”
DULUTH, Minn. — The cigarette butts floating on Chester Creek disgusted Benedicth Ukhueduan.
“There was this section of it that just had cigarette butts, just on top of it,” said Ukhueduan, a freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “It was just sick, and I wonder how toxic it is.”
Ukhueduan, a native of Nigeria who came to UMD by way of St. Michael, Minn., had a chance to find out, at least in part, along with other students in general biology lab this week.
Guided by teaching assistant William Chen, a New Zealander who came to UMD to study moose, the students looked through microscopes Friday at Daphnia, aka water fleas. They saw the effect on the Daphnia of water contaminated for 24 hours with one of four different types of cigarette filters: nonsmoked with just the filter; nonsmoked with residual tobacco; smoked with just the filter; and smoked filters with residual tobacco.
A cigarette butt discarded in the gutter most likely will be in the latter category, said Pat Schoff, a research associate at UMD and the Natural Resources Research Institute, who designed the lab and obtained federal funding. It’s also the hardest on Daphnia, as the students would quickly see through their microscopes.
“The Daphnia, their heartbeats were super irregular,” said Nick Peterson, a freshman from St. Paul. “They’ll be going really fast and then almost seem to stop or really slow down.”
Schoff responded, “That’s a really interesting result, that irregular heartbeat.”
Glancing through his notes after class, Luke Nelson, a freshman from Elk River, Minn., reported fast, regular action from Daphnia in the least contaminated sample. But “there was one that had two filters, and they were very slow and not coordinated at all.”
The findings are relevant, Schoff said, because the cigarette butts tossed to the ground don’t stay there.
“What we’re trying to do is get the message across that you throw that cigarette butt into the gutter, it will be picked up by water coming by rain, and sooner or later the chemicals that we get out of here, we’re going to get the same chemicals in our streams and lakes.”
He was pointing at sickly-colored beakers of water in a refrigerator in the lab’s supply room.
Many of the students got involved firsthand as volunteers in the Great Lakes Aquarium’s Beach Sweep on Sept. 24. As part of the three-year grant Schoff obtained, a UMD student was hired to coordinate the sweep of Lake Superior beaches and tributaries last year and this year. First-year biology students weren’t required to participate, although there was extra credit for those who did, Schoff said.
The students found trash of all sorts. “I felt kind of sad because of what we picked up,” Ukhueduan said. “We picked up plastic bags, we picked up condoms, we picked up different kinds of stuff.”
But the cigarette butts were the most prevalent, she said. “It was gross. I didn’t even want to touch them.”
Some of the cigarette butts the students gathered were used in this week’s experiments. Schoff knew there would be an ample supply.
“The major item of trash collected in any of these beach sweep efforts is cigarette butts,” he said. “This puts it on a very visceral level for the students, because they can actually see it themselves.”
The grant was supposed to provide $45,000 a year for three years. Schoff used it to coordinate a cluster of programs at UMD, Lake Superior College, the University of Wisconsin-Superior and Northland College, all involving hands-on experience in environmental projects.
The grant is in its second year. But funding was cut off in this year’s federal budget deal, Schoff said, leaving the program only partially funded this year and with no funding next year.
“We’re trying to figure out how to keep it going,” Schoff said. “Frankly, we’re not sure what we’ll do for the third year.”
UMD will have introductory biology labs regardless. But Schoff said he likes the extras the grant provided.
“It’s a really nice connection between the university and the community,” he said. “Students get their hands dirty, and they actually provide a service.”
John Lundy is a reporter at the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.