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Lambro, Po, Lake Maggiore and Lake Pusiano, but theWater Research Institute reaches the top of the Himalayas, from Brugherio, to further study the mechanisms of pollution and water recovery. Gianni Tartari, responsible for the Brianza section of the center, he tells what flows in rivers, what floats in lakes or hides in the transparent depths. And it is only a small part of the many activities that the institute carries out.
1) What activities do you carry out at the Brugherio site?
L'IRSA (Institute for Research on Waters), one of the 107 institutes of the National Research Council, is distributed nationwide in three locations: Rome (Directorate), Bari and Brugherio. The main research activities concern the quality of surface and groundwater, the management of water resources in terms of quantity and the treatment of urban and industrial wastewater.
In Brugherio, the activity focuses mainly on quality and precisely: the circulation of pollutants, or the study of how chemical species move in the environment from the source to their final destiny, generally the sediments. In this movement, toxic chemical species can cause damage to flora and fauna and reach humans.
We deal with ecotoxicology: we study the mechanisms of accumulation and environmental danger. The changes determined by the development of societies determine changes in the ecological communities of aquatic systems (lakes, rivers, etc.) whose measurement makes it possible to establish a classification of the degree of deterioration and, consequently, to define the management recovery actions.
2) Which rivers and lakes in particular do you study and monitor? How?
Being a Research Institution, we do not monitor, it is the ones who do it Regional Agencies for Environmental Protection (ARPA). For the activity we carry out, however, we focus on some target environments by studying the mechanisms and processes that lead to the degradation or recovery of their quality. For example, we study the Lambro and the Po, between the rivers, the Pusiano, the Como and the Maggiore, between the lakes.
The study activity is however carried out in an unconventional way, and generally innovative methodologies are applied alongside very common procedures in these scientific fields.
In some situations, such as in the remote areas of the Alps and the Himalayas, the procedures provide, however, more complex sampling methods such as with long excursions at high altitude and the use of helicopters.
3) Il Lambro: what state is it in? What risks for men?
It is difficult to give an unambiguous answer because the Milanese hydrographic system is very complex: Lambro, Seveso and Olona enter the city and the Southern, Northern and Lambro Inferiore Lambro exits which ultimately convey all the water into the Po.
Remaining at Lambro, in the north up to Monza the waters have a sufficient quality, while in the south the Lambro Meridionale, the northern one and the Inferiore are in a state of very bad / poor quality, but slightly improving following the entry into operation of the purification system of the city of Milan.
The main pollutants are the nutrients of the still untreated urban waste and the run-off water of large impermeable surfaces. To these must be added the industrial discharges and agricultural inputs in the lower part of the Lambro. Overall, the molecules of pollutants present can theoretically reach tens of thousands and in continuous growth. The risks for humans are however limited, given the low use of water by the inhabitants of these areas.
4) Feminization of fish: what is it about? Why does it happen and what risks does it involve for humans?
It occurs in the Po River, according to our research, and is similar to that found in other European rivers. It is due to the introduction of thousands of substances in low concentration. In densely populated urban areas, wastewater contains numerous chemicals with endocrine disruptive properties. The presence of natural hormones, hormones from contraceptive pills, medicines, detergents, pesticides, flame retardants, chemicals in cosmetics (which traditional treatment systems are unable to remove) adversely affect the endocrine system by affecting functions reproductive.
In this way, by acting on the reproductive capacity, the immune system is altered and morphological and functional abnormalities of development are caused, such as hermaphroditism, in fish populations.
The same observed effects can theoretically also occur in humans by exposure to mixtures of contaminants that interfere with the development of the reproductive system. To date, however, the evidence of such effects on the human species is still controversial.
5) After the Lambro, the Po: what state is it in?
The great Po river suffers from the enormous anthropization of its hydrographic basin. In general, however, the vast availability of water that converges from its tributaries allows it to still have a sufficient state, except in certain crucial nodes, such as downstream of the Lambro intake.
The major pollutants are still the same as in Lambro, including the nutrients deriving from urban wastewater and agricultural run-off, and the thousands of organic micro-pollutants.
Since the water of the Po is an indispensable drinking water resource in the lower part of its path, the risks for humans are controlled and kept below the alert threshold thanks to very sophisticated treatment systems that guarantee good quality.
6) What work did you do for Lake Maggiore? What emerged?
Lake Maggiore is an emblematic example of the disastrous consequences of the mismanagement of an industrial site. The presence for several decades of a factory for the production of DDT a few tens of km from the mouth of the River Toce has resulted in a release of this pollutant, the use of which has been prohibited since the 1970s.
The consequences of introducing a few tens of kg of highly toxic product into the Maggiore were bio-accumulation in fish, up to concentrations above the edible threshold.
Probably the phenomenon had already been underway for some time, but only in the mid-90s did it emerge in its dimension at the scale of the entire ecosystem. Since then, the IRSA has had the task of analyzing the circulation of this pollutant and its derivatives, measuring the concentrations in fish, sediments, lake and river waters, in the rains according to specific programs agreed with the International Commission for the protection of Italian waters. Swiss.
7) And for Lake Pusiano?
The Briantei lakes were the subject of an IRSA survey at the beginning of the seventies that set the stage for a pioneering limnological approach, not only in Italy. Since the mid-1980s, Lake Pusiano has become a case study in which dozens of researchers and undergraduates have ventured. The initial goal was to understand how the lake would have evolved, then in a state of hypertrophy (abnormal volume increase), following the management interventions of urban wastewater collection started in those times.
Since then, studies have tried to identify in an increasingly detailed way the residual sources of pollution, which here too are linked to the excess of urban wastewater, reaching as far as defining the last interventions necessary for a full recovery of the water.
Finally, the Pusiano represents a case study that can be exported to all small Italian lakes and beyond.
Interview byMarta Abbà