Academic Loaner: Environmental soils in NJ parks with SciAps XRF

April 4, 2022

Rutgers University professor uses SciAps XRF for parks project

SciAps most recent Academic Loaner Program story comes from Rutgers University, Newark, where researchers have detected an exceedance of heavy metals in the soil of local parks.

Dr. Ashaki Rouff, an associate professor, and Suah Yekeh, a second year Ph.D. student, in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University, sought a portable XRF to analyze recreational soils in municipal parks for contaminants, a project Yekeh was pursuing for her Ph.D.

SciAps loaned them the X-200 during the summer of 2021 (the instrument has since been superseded by SciAps X-505), and the resulting study, “XRF Evaluation of Heavy Metals in Parks of Newark, New Jersey,” detected arsenic, cobalt, and lead in concentrations above New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection limits in those high-contact recreational soils.

The findings made their case for further analysis. In summer 2022, the team is going to be working with a brand new One Box system featuring SciAps X-505 XRF and Z-903 LIBS, purchased through a National Science Foundation grant. Last year’s work, included in the grant proposal, was instrumental in getting the grant money.

“We can’t wait to get back out into the field with our own system in the summer,” Rouff says. “We're very excited.”

A new tool for community-based research

Rutgers is regarded as an anchor institution in Newark, and a project like this advances their mission of community-based research, learning, and teaching. The handheld XRF was not only critical to the study’s scientific validity, but also drew a bit of attention as a public relations tool in the community where Yekeh was raised.

“My favorite part of performing the study was being able to show all the curious kids what I was doing with the analyzer,” Yekeh says. “One of the parks is near where a lot of Spanish, Cuban, and Brazilian people live. A 5-year-old boy asked me so many questions and then apologized for bothering me. Of course, it wasn’t a bother. I enjoyed it,” she says.

After learning about the XRF and watching her work (with permission from his parents), she says he told her, “‘I want to be a scientist when I grow up. I thought I was going to be a factory worker like my mom, but now I want to be a scientist just like you.’ It was so cute,” Yekeh says with a big smile.

Engaging the community is an element of the project design. In fact, the project traces its roots back to one of Rouff’s earlier student projects and fertilizer development at Rutgers. That study analyzed soils in community gardens and identified a prevalence of lead.

When Yekeh, a resident of Newark, joined the program, she knew where she wanted to test further for contaminants: the parks she and her family and friends frequented. She researched when the parks were developed, and then she investigated how and where residents are likely to have maximum exposure to soils and potential contaminants.

“Working with soil and water contamination, especially in areas where people are in play, was really important to me. I came from Liberia, so a lot of the soil and water pollution affected me when I was younger. Working on the park project over the summer showed me how important environmental science is. There were a lot of children in the park where I was sampling—a lot of teams on the fields and young children in various activities—and it wasn't just for an hour or so, but consistently throughout the whole day,” Yekeh says.

Once the shape of the project was outlined, it became even more evident that they would need a handheld XRF that would allow them to see what metals and metal assemblages were present, automatically. “That allowed us to make really concerted decisions about which soils we wanted to sample for the evaluation,” Rouff says.

Dr. Ashaki Rouff, associate professor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University, Newark, is an environmental geochemist studying soil and water contaminants in natural and human-impacted systems with the goal of environmental preservation and sustainability.
Suah Yekeh is a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University, Newark, currently studying environmental science with a concentration in soil and water contaminants.

Critical instrumentation with hXRF

Rouff had discovered two things during the community gardens project: First, just looking at the community garden soils was not going to be enough in a city like Newark that has a record of pollution; second, they wasted a lot of time bringing too many samples back to the lab.

Using the NJDEP limits for residential contact soils as the standard to evaluate the soils, Yekeh and two undergraduate students that she was mentoring used SciAps academic loaner to target and collect samples. Now in the lab, they’re adding the arsenic, lead, and cobalt data with GPS coordinates into their GIS to show the concentration and potency from one area to another.

Rouff says SciAps XRF improved the efficiency and user experience of the project. They previously tried working with another company’s analyzer, and hadn’t received a lot of support or guidance, she says.

“SciAps actually came in and did a demo for us, which was quite informative,” Rouff says. “When we borrowed the XRF through the Academic Loaner program, we were trained how to use it and collected invaluable data. It solidified the decision to purchase analyzers from SciAps.”  

For Yekeh, the academic loaner data not only jump started her project, but also will be included in the presentation portion of the qualifier exam for her Ph.D. “Without the SciAps Academic Loaner Program, I wouldn't be as far ahead as I am currently. I started this journey with a group of students, but now I’m way ahead in my project,” says Yekeh. “So, thank you so much for having this program. It's much needed, especially for labs like Dr. Rouff ‘s and other labs that might need it in the future.”

Next steps: Complete analysis, now with carbon included

In the next phase, the researchers will use SciAps X-505 to conduct a complete analysis of the soils to get an assessment of the potential mobility of the contaminants and the potential of the contaminated soils to infiltrate the air. SciAps Z-903 LIBS (laser) will allow them to expand the study to see what’s going on with carbon in the soil, too.

“I want to understand how the metal contents and the carbon content correlate. We already know from our speciation analyses that we do have metals bound to a lot of organic material, and so I think it will be interesting and informative to also quantify carbon in the soils and see what the correlations look like,” Rouff says.

Expanding the campus experience

On campus, Rouff has already added XRF analysis to soil modules in environmental and geochemistry courses for those students who are not necessarily participating in research but will benefit from the immediate analysis of samples in the classroom. “We are going to be developing and modifying course modules to include the XRF wherever we can,” Rouff says.

Rouff will also deploy the XRF and LIBS analyzers on smaller-scale undergraduate research projects that connect to the whole project. “We can engage a broader range of students in this type of public or community-based research. So I can run summer programs with undergraduates, and using the XRF is going to be a lifesaver in terms of doing analysis in the field,” Rouff says.

And when Yekeh has the opportunity to talk to high school students about her project, she is able to tell them about the Environmental Science program at Rutgers and how the university offers summer programs for them. “When I tell them I am a Ph.D. candidate in the program, I think it is cool for them to see somebody from their area going farther with education,” Yekeh says.

More academic applications

SciAps is expanding the world of handheld LIBS and XRF. Read more about our academic loaners and independent studies.

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