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Czechs pollute the sea too. They just don’t know about it

European seas contain alarming levels of drug residues, warns MU chemist and PhD student Miroslav Brumovský.

Miroslav Brumovský, a PhD student at Masaryk University, has been going to the sea in recent months to study the levels of pollution.

While most Czechs go to the seaside on holiday, trips to the sea have a very different meaning for Miroslav Brumovský. As a PhD student at Masaryk University’s Research Centre for Toxic Compounds in the Environment, he has been going to the sea in recent months to study the levels of pollution. He found that both the Mediterranean and the North Sea contain alarming levels of drug residues.

“My bachelor’s and master’s studies each had a different focus and when I enrolled in my PhD studies, I knew I was ready for a new challenge. My current position offers a perfect mix of working at my computer, in the lab, and while travelling, which is something I enjoy,” says Brumovský. This is what drew him to study the pollution of sea waters, when his current supervisor Luca Nizzetto offered this dissertation topic four years ago.

Brumovský learned about Nizzetto more or less by chance, but he was attracted by both the topic and Nizzetto’s experience. Besides his home country of Italy, his supervisor has also worked in the UK, Czech Republic, and Norway, where he is still active today.

It stands to reason that sea pollution research cannot be conducted in a lab in Brno but at the seaside and on the sea. Brumovský took part in two research cruises on the Mediterranean—one took three weeks and the other a month.

He also visited the North Sea. However, this part of the research used a method less costly than a research cruise. “We use an automatic sampler attached to a larger commercial vessel, with the consent of its owners. The device can be controlled remotely via a mobile phone: you can see where the ship is and send a command to collect samples in the required location.”

Brumovský is currently busy writing papers and his dissertation based on the collected data. It is known that waste water contains residues of drugs, detergents, and hormones. However, Brumovský discovered that residues of ibuprofen or a certain type of antibiotics can also be found in the sea, in concentrations ranging from picograms to nanograms per litre.

While such low concentrations do not pose a direct risk to humans, their impact on microorganisms is a problem, especially with regard to increasing resistance to antibiotics.

“Based on our preliminary research, we were aware that these substances could be present; they have also been found in Czech rivers,” says Brumovský. “Given the immense volume of water in the sea and the consequent dilution, it is alarming that residues of these substances were found in seawater, including on the open sea, and in measurable quantities.” He adds that there are two possible explanations, both problematic: either the substances survive in the water for a long time, or their quantities are so large that the sea is unable to break them down.

German ministry prize
Brumovský received the Green Talents award for his important finding. The award was established in 2009 by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. It is valuable especially as it can open many interesting doors to a PhD student.

As he explains, “I participated in the competition mainly because I wanted to meet other young researchers who work on sustainability issues. Moreover, winners of the award are invited to visit various research institutions in Germany.”

Most importantly, his success means that he can now choose a German research institution or company for a three-month internship in 2017. He has not decided about his destination yet. He is considering Leipzig, but will make his final decision based on his preferred career path.