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Backyard Science

Student and teacher research the purity of rooftop runoff

By Eric Seeger

Linda Pyeritz

THE PHRASE “rise to the challenge” gets thrown around a lot in academia, but Gulfani Putra ’13, a Chemistry major from Indonesia, has taken it literally—up a 12-foot ladder in back­yards across Asheville. For his undergraduate research project, Putra has been studying the chemicals that leach from roof shingles into rainwater runoff.

The project started when Putra’s professor, Jeff Wilcox, wanted to add a rain barrel to his house. “I started wondering ‘Should I be water­ing my vegetable garden with the water from my roof?’” says Wilcox. He called the local N.C. Cooperative Extension office and asked if they had any data showing whether harmful mate­rial could enter the rooftop runoff. They didn’t have much information.

He found that research using common U.S. roofing materials was almost nonexistent. So Wilcox challenged his students to develop methods to test the interaction of shingles and water in the lab. They tested new and old shingles made of different materials to find out whether age, wear and acid rain played a role in leaching chemicals.

It reminded me of my home in Borneo, Indonesia. People collect water from their rooftops [for drinking]."

—Gulfani Putra '13

Next, Wilcox wanted to conduct real-world tests, taking samples from residential gutters. That’s when Putra volunteered to tackle this project for his undergraduate research work. “It got me thinking, because it reminded me of my home in Borneo, Indonesia,” says Putra. “People collect water from their rooftops [for drinking].”

Putra started by writing a grant request—which was approved—to fund this study. Then, he approached homeowners near campus and in East Asheville to get permission to install a cup in their gutters that would collect rain as it left the roof, collecting samples from more than 20 houses around town.

Back in the lab, Putra studied the water’s turbidity, pH levels, and he performed chemi­cal analyses. He found traces of copper in the water that came from roughly half the roofs with manufactured shingles. The highest levels they found were above EPA tolerances for surface water but within allowable levels for drinking water. Older roofs tended to leach more than new ones, and lab tests simulating acid rain showed increased levels of copper and titanium.

“He’s collected a lot of data,” Wilcox said, “and we’re going through it now to confirm our quality control.” For the next step, Wilcox would like to see Putra’s work prepared and submitted for publication in a scientific journal, which would be a huge accomplishment for an undergraduate student.

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