URI student wins international environmental chemistry award

Carrie McDonough earning doctorate from Graduate School of Oceanography

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Carrie McDonough, a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Photo courtesy of Carrie McDonough.

KINGSTON, R.I., — March 1, 2017—“Organophosphate esters” is a mouthful to most, but for Carrie McDonough the cryptic words spell possible doom for ocean waters.

McDonough, a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, studies these flame retardants to find out whether they are polluting the ocean.

Her conclusion: yes.

McDonough recently won the C. Ellen Gonter Environmental Chemistry Award from the American Chemical Society, the highest honor given by the organization’s Division of Environmental Chemistry.

The Cleveland native was honored for her paper, “Dissolved organophosphate esters in the North Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Ocean.”

“I’m very excited about the award, and I look forward to presenting the work at the group’s annual meeting in the fall,” says McDonough, who is scheduled to defend her dissertation March 23. “It’s been a very interesting project to be a part of, and I’m very grateful to my advisor, Rainer Lohmann, for getting me involved with the work.”

Many of the award recipients have gone on to become leaders in the field of environmental chemistry, and that could play out for McDonough. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, McDonough has been researching how chemicals pollute waterways since she came to the GSO to work with oceanographer Lohmann, an expert in marine pollutants.

She is studying two groups of compounds: synthetic fragrances, which are added to shampoo, soap, deodorant, detergent and cleaning supplies; and flame retardants, which are added to furniture, textiles, plastic toys and electronics to decrease flammability.

McDonough’s award-winning paper focused on organophosphate esters. They’ve been used more frequently over the past decade because scientists found that other kinds of flame retardants are toxic. Scientists speculated that the organophosphate esters wouldn’t break down in the environment, meaning they couldn’t travel to distant, fragile environments like the Arctic.

It was thought that organophosphate esters weren’t capable of “long-range transport” to Arctic regions after being released into the air and adhering to airborne particles that end up in the water. But recent studies have found them in Arctic air, so McDonough investigated if she could measure them in remote ocean waters.

Through collaboration with Environment Canada and the Alfred-Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven in Germany, sampling was done to measure organophosphate esters in deep North Atlantic water, as well as waters in the Canadian Arctic.

McDonough placed passive polyethylene samplers, or sheets of plastic, on deep moorings in the North Atlantic to find out whether the contaminants were in the ocean.

Her results are alarming: The pollutants are present at much greater concentrations than many other pollutants, including the previously banned flame retardants. This suggests that organophosphate esters might not be a good replacement after all.

“More research needs to focus on studying what effects these pollutants might be having in remote regions,” says McDonough, “and how they’re ending up there in the first place.”

Lohmann says he’s not surprised McDonough won the award. “Carrie is already a very accomplished, diligent and entrepreneurial student,” he says. “I’m glad she got rewarded for her outstanding work, in this case the first measurements of novel flame retardants in waters of the Arctic Ocean.”

McDonough is one of six students to win the international award, given annually to students at American and international universities who submit the highest quality research papers.

McDonough is also known for her successful blog, oceanbites, which offers plain-speaking articles about ocean sciences. Many of the contributors are students at GSO or GSO alumni.

“I’m happy,” she says, “to bring important science information to the world.”