U of A professor receives $542,000 from NSERC for drinking water research

Water is something people can't live without, that's why it's important that Xing Fang Li finds out what is in our tap water that may pose a disease risk. The researcher from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta just received $542,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for drinking water research.

Li, a professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, says there isn't 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. Water disinfection is essential, however an unintended consequence is the formation of disinfection by-products, or 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," said Li. "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 analytical and toxicological tools for discovery of DBPs of toxicological relevance and to find ways to eliminate toxic DBP formation in drinking water. The techniques developed are able to detect ng/L level, comparable to finding a teaspoon of salt in a swimming pool. Using ultrasensitive techniques, she 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," said Li. "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 they develop can also be applied to monitor other trace environmental contaminants.

Li is looking at all types of water from across North America including tap water, source water and even swimming pools, because human exposure to water in a swimming pool is just as important. She is 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," said Li. "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."


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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