Caffeine is found in products we consume every day, from coffee and tea to chocolate, energy drinks and supplements to name a few. But that extra boost of caffeine to start our day or to stay more alert can have some negative impacts on our environment.
In 2019, Villanova University student Leah Eastment, ’21, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, took water samples from the Parker and Rowley Rivers at the Plum Island Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in Massachusetts to measure levels of caffeine. But why caffeine?
“Caffeine is a predominantly human-consumed compound, found in drinks, food and medication,” says Eastment, who is an environmental science and geography double major, with a minor in sustainability. “Finding caffeine in these samples indicates untreated or partially treated human waste. There aren’t a lot of studies that look at the direct impacts of caffeine on the ecosystem. It could impact the primary producers in the area. The worst-case scenario would be that it causes a food-web collapse.”
Nathaniel Weston, PhD, associate professor and chair of the department of Geography and the Environment, oversees the Environmental Science Research Laboratory on campus and has been conducting research since 1996 at the Plum Island LTER, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. He is currently one of the principal investigators at the site.
“The general question we’ve been asking is how is this coastal system reacting to land-use change and climate change?” says Weston. “Some of what our research is focused on is understanding the links between land-use change and coastal processes and impacts on the coastal system. We’ve previously looked at pollutants coming into the watershed from natural and human sources. Since caffeine only comes from humans, it was a new avenue for us and using it was a direct measurement of human waste into the system.”