A boost for strategic research

(Edmonton) Water is something people can’t live without. That’s why it’s important that Xing Fang Li find out what may pose a disease risk in our tap water.

The researcher from the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry just received $542,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [NSERC] for drinking-water research, one of seven U of A researchers recognized by Ottawa with close to $3 million in Strategic Project Grants.

NSERC is putting money into specific areas of research and training with the potential to either stimulate the national economy or improve Canadian society and the environment. The grants awarded to the U of A allow for the continuation of work in a wide range of research such as disease prevention and resource exploration.

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, but 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 continue developing new analytical and toxicological tools for the discovery of DBPs of toxicological relevance and to find ways to eliminate toxic DBP formation in drinking water. The new techniques are able to detect levels comparable to finding a teaspoon of salt in a swimming pool.

“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 it is toxic, how we can eliminate it, and how we can formulate a monitoring process to regulate the water.” The detection techniques developed by Li’s research team can also be applied to monitoring 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. 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 drinking water.

“As an important contribution from the last project, we identified some of the 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 how we can eliminate them.”

Other research projects receiving NSERC Strategic Project Grants:

- Kenneth Cadien (Chemical and Materials Engineering): $559,500 for work on a nano-catalytic energy cell.

- Hani Henein (Chemical and Materials Engineering): $341,200 for ANR-microstructural modelling of rapidly solidified droplets and spray formed strip of Al-Cu-Sc.

- Kamaljit Kaur (Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences): $431,100 for detection of pathogenic bacteria through antimicrobial peptide-based canetilever bio-MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical System) sensor.

- Venkata Dinavahi (Electrical and Computer Engineering): $322,410 for development of a reconfigurable and data-parallel architecture for real-time digital simulation of large-scale electric power systems.

- Uwe Hacke (Renewable Resources): $429,042 for exploring variation in transcriptional profiles and hydraulic architecture in hybrid poplar clones.

- Jeremy Richards (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences): $551,820 for improving the effectiveness of ZTEM surveys for porphyry copper exploration in the Canadian Cordillera.