Indoor Phytoremediation Properties of Epipremnum Aureum

By Elizabeth Kovacs, DU Quark Intern

As I have expressed in my blogs previously, I enjoy writing for the Quark and participating in the Quark internship because it allows me to research topics that interest me that I otherwise may not learn about. While these are often topics that are inspired by discussions in my classes, I try to focus on things that I am not specifically learning about but want to learn more. In this case, it has allowed me to expand on a topic that I had previously researched as part of a group project in a plant biodiversity course last semester. As my contribution to the group, I was in charge of actually selecting the plants to be used and measuring and interpreting the data for air quality before and after the plants were introduced. While we used three different types of plants with known air filtration qualities, when I expanded on the research on my own, I chose only one. I selected golden pothos, or Epipremnum aureum, for its low-maintenance nature, ease in propagation, and how readily available it is. 

I struggled with this individual research, because I didn’t just want to repeat the same experiment I completed with my group. We already know that plants have air filtration qualities, some more than others. We generally know what type of airborne toxins they filter out as well, which is what the air quality monitors are geared toward testing. While research like this is still important and has its place in science, I felt as though it would be repetitive to simply test this plants’ specific effect on air quality indoors, especially since testing this in my own home is not the same as testing it in a control-free structured lab environment. To decide how to make this research more interesting and less repetitive, I looked toward what we don’t know about plants and air filtration. 

While we know that plants improve indoor air quality, the mechanism by which they do so is largely unknown. Whether they filter the toxins and reuse them or whether they are able to store them in the leaves, stems, or roots and soil is up for debate. I originally had set out to test the soil quality to see if it was affected after being exposed to many toxins in the home. However, there may be no correlation between particulate matter and concentration of soil nutrients, and testing for anything other than Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, and pH would require lab access that I do not have. This would also probably require propagating and growing the plant to maturation before testing to really be able to be certain that the roots and soil were not affected by any other indoor air contaminants from their previous environments. 

Finally, I decided that the best way I could measure how plants best absorb toxins was to measure the somatic absorption. The somatic absorption is the absorption through the leaves themselves, so to do this I had to separate the leaves from the rest of the plant. Since I planned to cut and propagate the plant regardless, this seemed like a good idea. To propagate a plant, the stem is cut and placed in water until roots begin to grow. To make the experiment as accurate as possible and eliminate as much experimental error as possible, I needed to have an equal amount of leaves on the plant itself that I have propagating in water. If the results end up being similar between the control plant and the propagated stems, this will indicate that somatic absorption is the main factor that works in purifying the air in golden pothos plants. 

I hope that this research will be able to stand out from previous research on houseplants and help in understanding the mechanism in which golden pothos is able to purify indoor air so effectively. This research is important considering how many individuals struggle with poor indoor air quality, many times without even realizing it. Cleaning products, perfumes and air fresheners, candles, cooking, old building materials as well as antiquated utilities and appliances are all things that can contribute to poor indoor air quality, specifically large and small particulates, which is what the Speck air quality monitor I am using tests for. Recent studies have shown that large and small particulates in cigarettes actually may be what causes lung cancer linked to smoking, so eliminating these in the home is incredibly important for human health. 

I decided to use the golden pothos with this in mind, as it is such a low maintenance plant. These properties make an effective and realistic way to improve indoor air quality and subsequently, human health. Its ease in propagation means that it can easily be cut and shared with friends and family to benefit more individuals and makes it easily accessible. Its low maintenance water and light requirements make it ideal for even those who find it difficult to keep houseplants alive. I am excited to finish this research and detail a primary research project such as this in the Quark.

Environmental Justice in Alaska Native communities

By Elizabeth Kovacs, DU Quark intern

One thing that I enjoy about this internship is that it allows me the opportunity to research and write about topics that not only interest me, but that I think deserve more groundwork and attention in science. Environmental justice is a term that I was previously unfamiliar with, but that was introduced to me fairly early in my environmental science studies. The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” While this may sound like common sense, environmental justice is a huge issue today.

The lack of clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan, is arguably the most prevalent instance of an obstruction of environmental justice within the past few years. However, this is just one of the numerous issues of environmental justice and there are far too many that receive even less media attention. As issues of pollution and climate change continue to worsen, the consequent environmental and health repercussions for vulnerable populations continue to worsen as well. Hazardous wastes, poor air and water quality, and failure of corporations and government agencies to provide a solution to pollution and waste have been building for years and something needs to be done to protect those who are most affected. 

An instance of environmental justice that receives even less attention than the norm is environmental justice in Native American and Alaska Native populations. The United States has been notoriously poor at upholding responsibilities to tribal communities and issues of pollution and contamination are no exception. In addition to severe neglect in regard to the source of the problem, there are a number of factors that make Native Alaskan populations especially vulnerable to the repercussions of pollution. While this is an issue that desperately needs more research and attention, there is one subset that is relatively well-researched. The Yupik and Inuit tribes are two Alaska Native communities that have had a significant amount of research conducted about the problems they face as a result of pollution caused by the government. 

Most of the research is centered around St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. The main source of contamination near the island is formerly used defense sites (FUDs) from the US military. There is a large number of FUDs in Alaska that are classified as containing toxic and hazardous waste, and the government has not taken steps to decontaminate or contain the toxic waste despite the FUDs having not been in use for decades. The chemicals that are given off by the FUDs have been found in the fish and sea mammals such as seals that are an integral part of the diet of Alaska Natives. Because of this, humans consume high levels of these harmful chemicals and have suffered a multitude of health problems that are directly correlated to the presence of these chemicals. This is especially true for women in these communities, who can be more sensitive to the effects of pollution and more likely to pass these chemicals on to children through pregnancy and breastfeeding. 

There is not one distinct way in which these chemicals affect Alaska Native individuals. Instead, there is a variety of health problems that can be traced to the pollution. Cancer, infant mortality, and reproductive issues have all been linked to the chemicals. Despite this being an issue of public health, environmental justice, and reproductive justice, little has been done to stop the source of the pollution and no reparations have been made in regard to the health problems that these communities continue to suffer from. This is completely unfair to force these populations to suffer from these issues solely for existing in their communities and participating in important cultural practices. The lack of attention by the US government to remedy the problem is upsetting and discriminatory. 

Everyone deserves the right to a healthy environment and to having their cultural practices and communities treated with respect and dignity. This very clearly goes against the definition of environmental justice set forth by the EPA and there is a substantial amount of work that needs to be done. Not only is there work to be done to decontaminate and halt the source of pollution, but there are reparations that need to be made. Nothing can make up for the fact that these communities have suffered for decades, but an attempt to fix the problem is a step in the right direction. There is a need for more research and attention in the scientific community to issues such as these, and hopefully those who can fix the problem will follow. 

If you would like to read more on this topic, a full review will be available shortly at duquark.com

Science Literacy and Current Events: The Burning of the Amazon

Author: Elizabeth Kovacs, Duquesne University Quark Intern

Upon signing up for the Duquesne Quark internship, I was asked what I hoped to accomplish during this semester. While I was looking forward to becoming more familiar with the peer review process and enhancing my writing skills overall, science communication was on the forefront of my mind. As someone who has always had a deep interest in the sciences and ample years of studying college-level science under my belt (changing majors will allow for that), I don’t often think about how science is perceived by those who are not as science literate. When I read a textbook, come across an article, or see something posted on social media that has to do with a scientific study, I automatically think about where this data came from, how old the data is, and the validity of the source relaying the information. However, I understand that this is simply not the case for many others who are exposed to scientific information online and in the form of social media.
Recently, this difference in science literacy and lack of fact-checking has become glaringly obvious to me as many reports about the fires in the Amazon have circulated online. While I am no expert on the situation, I repeatedly saw articles being shared online and through social media that seemed to be assumptions based on little factual evidence. Many individuals who I would have assumed to be at least somewhat science literate such as astronauts, politicians, and climate change advocates tweeted and made claims about the amount of oxygen that the Amazon rainforest produced for the rest of the globe to make use of. A false claim that the Amazon rainforest singlehandedly produces 20% of the world’s global oxygen supply circulated, resulting in panic that while the Amazon continued to burn, those of us in North America would somehow be left with one fifth less oxygen than we need.
While the Amazon rainforest is a massive green space and is an undoubtedly essential ecosystem, this claim not only overestimates its net oxygen production but also does not take into account the basics of cellular respiration. Plants do not simply take in carbon dioxide and continually expel oxygen, but also use oxygen to power cellular respiration when sunlight is not available. The Amazon, which includes many shaded areas because of the density of trees and plants, is not exempt from this and also consumes available oxygen when there is no sunlight. A quick internet search could have provided factual information about the net oxygen production in the Amazon as well as globally. It also would have provided many of the actual, evidence-based reasons that preservation of the Amazon is essential for life.
The oxygen production is not the only falsely circulated claim surrounding the burning of the Amazon. I saw many tweets claiming things such as “this is what is REALLY going on in the Amazon-and this is what you can do to help.” Many of these threads indicated that the fires were started in relation to forested land being sold for cattle grazing, which is not false. However, these threads also indicated that what Americans should do to help is either halt red meat consumption or drastically decrease it. While Brazil is the global leader in beef exports, its supply mainly stays in Brazil itself or is exported to China, with a smaller amount being exported to the United States. The majority of Brazilian cattle products being sold in the United States are not ground beef or a steak, as suggested by many on social media. It is more relevant in leather products and processed, canned red meat products. Limiting red meat consumption in the United States will have a positive environmental impact overall, but may not have any direct correlation on the burning of the Amazon.
These falsities have been shared on social media thousands of times, reaching thousands more unknowing people. Unless those individuals have done their own research, it is likely that they too fell into the cycle of believing these assumptions without factual evidence to support these claims. Without scientists and others who are science-literate entering the discussion, individuals will continue to retain these false assumptions and perhaps even pat themselves on the back thinking they are helping the burning of the Amazon when their energy is misguided. It is so important for science-literate individuals to join the discussion and emphasize the many reasons that preserving the Amazon is important, such as ecosystem services, biodiversity, and respect for indigenous populations.
Throughout this internship, I hope to become better at recognizing false and misguided scientific information where I see it. I hope to better understand not only those with lower levels of science literacy than me, but also those individuals who have the potential to be very science literate but do not get their scientific information from reliable sources. Everyone has the potential to be science literate, so I believe that learning what constitutes valid scientific information and reliable sources is half the battle. While social media is beneficial for many reasons, I believe that it can also be harmful to scientific topics and events, as evidenced by the discourse surrounding the burning of the Amazon. I hope to increase my science literacy and improve my skills in writing for audiences of varying scientific literacy in order to join the discussion on issues such as these and educate others.