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The Arsenic Project

Faculty participant: Julian Tyson, Chemistry

Pressure-treated wood, the timber with the greenish tinge that is used to make telegraph poles, decks, docks, roadside fences, duck-boards, and even children's playgrounds, has been preserved with a mixture of the oxides of chromium, copper and arsenic (dissolved in water) known as CCA (chromated copper arsenate). Although this material (CCA-wood) is being phased out by the timber preservation industry, there is a large amount of it in contact with soil and water in Western Massachusetts (and elsewhere - it is a national issue). Pressure-treated wood (PTW) is not the only source of possible arsenic contamination of our environment, but it is one that is easily visible and accessible.  The arsenic project is based on investigations around the general question of to what extent is PTW a source of arsenic? and some closely related questions such as what can be done to minimize the impact of PTW?, and what can be done to remove arsenic from soil and water?  

The arsenic project has been in operation during the first year of the STEM Connections program and has proved to be highly successful, involving several classes in Forest Park Middle School in Springfield (teachers Deborah Danoff-Hoppe and Alison Stefanik) and classes at Agawam High School (teacher Bob Janik).  The fellows involved were Mary Johnson, Laurin Sievert and Lisa Provencher.  In addition to class projects, students worked on individual, or small group, science fair projects.  There will be a rich legacy of materials available for the participants in the second year of the program.  Much of the data that the students produce comes from a simple test kit, which can be used in the classroom, that detects down to about 500 ng of arsenic in up to 50 mL aqueous solution.  More complex or difficult analyses can be done by graduate students in the Tyson research lab, where one student is developing low-cost equipment, which should produce more useful results, to support the project.  GK-12 fellows will interact with several researchers in the Tyson group who are conducting projects to do with aspects of the environmental chemistry of arsenic for their doctoral dissertations.