Brendan O’Leary’s Research Showcase: Evaluating the pathways and risks for shallow urban groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin

Urban centers face many environmental issues that can lead to direct impacts on community health, property values, and environmental justice.  Understanding pollutant movement in the environment and how it impacts urban health is critical for sustainable urban development, particularly when evaluating the sustainability of urban water systems. This cross-over between urban health and hydrology brought me to Wayne State University, where I am developing methods for understanding vadose zone pollutant movement.  

At Wayne State University, I am working with the Healthy Urban Waters group and Transformative Research in Urban Sustainability Training group to evaluate shallow urban groundwater and how it contributes to volatile organic component (VOC) movement in the vadose zone. Urban centers, like Detroit, have many legacy brownfield sites (Figure 1) that impact all communities and can lead to negative urban health impacts. Understanding VOC movement in the shallow near-surface zone will yield a more informed understanding of potential exposure routes due to groundwater and soil vapor transport in urban areas. This work has direct applications to support epidemiological research on VOC and preterm birth rates (Cassidy-Bushrow et al., Article in Press).  

Figure 1: Map of Detroit showing neighborhoods and brownfield locations.

Over the past year, I worked to develop an urban water budget at a neighborhood urban farm (Figure 2). This project, centered at RecoveryPark, serves as an example field site for evaluating neighborhood-scale, urban, shallow groundwater movement in Detroit. An urban water budget and groundwater simulation model, developed with Sadaf Teimoori, were generated as an initial example of urban water movement in coastal Great Lakes cities. This model will help with the examination and evaluation of the potential risks posed to urban environments and human health.

Figure 2: Conceptual model of an urban water budget showing crossover between water utility piping and the natural water cycle.

Funding for this research is provided by Healthy Urban Waters through the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation and by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1735038.


Cassidy-Bushrow, A. E., Burmeister, C., Lamerato, L., Lemke, L. D., Mathieu, M., O’Leary, B.F., , Sperone, F. G., et al. (Article in Press). Prenatal Airshed Pollutants and Preterm Birth in an Observational Birth Cohort Study in Detroit, Michigan, USA. Environmental Research.

By Brendan O’Leary

Wayne State University

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