Melting snow reveals high concentration of harmful pollutants

Friday, April 15, 2011 9:36:00 AM

Research News


Research by environmental chemist Dr. Torsten Meyer has found a peak release of harmful contaminants as snowpacks melt in early spring. 

An expert on snow-bound organic contaminants and a Postdoctoral Fellow at U of T Scarborough's Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, Dr. Meyer tracks the movements of harmful chemicals and water-soluble chemicals through the snowpack as temperatures rise.  These chemicals include those from pesticides, car exhaust, telecommunications wiring insulation, water repellent clothing, paints or coatings that accumulate in snowpacks during the winter months.  In a specially designed, temperature-controlled laboratory, Dr. Meyer creates large baths of fresh snow already tainted with organic contaminants and then slowly melts the "dirty" snow, collects the melt-water and tracks the chemicals as they emerge from the snowpack. 

By the time snow has turned black with muck and grime, many harmful  chemicals may have already seeped out of the snow and into the surrounding ground water or surface water. His research findings reveal a peak contaminant flush at the very beginning of the melt.  The melt also often coincides with time periods when many aquatic organisms are at a vulnerable stage of their life cycle. 

Dr. Meyer is a member of Professor Frank Wania's research group, whose research focuses on the global fate of persistent contaminants.  Dr. Meyer's research is unique because previous studies on snowmelt contaminants have all used either a small cylinder of natural snow or very low volumes of artificially produced snow.  He is also one of only a handful of researchers in the world who study snow and organic contaminants. 

Although he views his work as fundamental research, Dr. Meyer's findings have obvious implications, such as how municipalities choose their snow dump sites. According to him, cities and towns should be very careful to select well-contained sites to protect against that early flush of pollutants.

This is an edited excerpt from an article found at www.utsc.utoronto.ca.

For more information, please contact Dr. Meyer at torsten.meyer@utoronto.ca.