Feb 13, 2012

University of Alberta Researcher Awarded Grant to Study Drinking Water

Xing Fang Li to use funds for researching toxic disinfection byproducts

Xing Fang Li, a researcher from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta, received a $542,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) for drinking water research.

A professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Li said there is not anything imminently dangerous in North America's drinking water, but long-term exposure to chemicals in disinfected water is possibly linked to a risk of bladder cancer. An unintended consequence of water disinfection is the formation of disinfection byproducts (DBPs) from reactions between natural organic matter in water and the disinfectants.

"Epidemiological studies show there may be an association between disinfected water and a possible increase in risk of bladder cancer, but no evidence about what is causing the risk of bladder cancer," Li said. "No currently indentified DBP can explain a bladder cancer risk. We don't know what chemicals may be responsible … a lot of DBPs have not been identified and their properties are not known."

Li will use the funding to develop new tools for discovery of DBPs of toxicological relevance, and to find ways to eliminate toxic DBP formation in drinking water. The techniques developed will be able to detect nanogram-per-leter levels, comparable to finding a teaspoon of salt in a swimming pool. Using ultrasensitive techniques, Li can help determine whether there are truly DBPs that pose a human health risk.

"If we know what's in water and what needs to be removed, then we can design the process to avoid producing these DBPs," she said. "The overall long-term goal is to have an understanding of what is being produced, if they are toxic, how we can eliminate these and how we can formulate a monitoring process to regulate the water."

The techniques developed can also be applied to monitor other trace environmental contaminants. Li will look at all types of water from across North America, including tap water, source water and swimming pools, building on work already completed for the U.S. Water Research Foundation; her project was selected and funded by the agency in a major international competition to investigate potential toxic DBPs in North American's drinking water.

"As an important contribution from the last project, we identified some of DBPs that are toxicologically relevant," Li said. "With established expertise now we can focus on those related compounds to understand how they are produced and find out how we can eliminate these."