Water scientists lend expertise to North American study

(Edmonton) Researchers from the University of Alberta will join a team of North American scientists studying the levels of carcinogenic compounds found in drinking water.

Xing-Fang Li and Steve E. Hrudey will lead the U of A team participating in the multi-centre study to investigate the formation of nitrosamines in some 36 water treatment plants in Canada and the United States. Nitrosamines are a class of carcinogenic compounds that may be produced in trace concentrations by disinfecting drinking water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering whether to regulate levels of nitrosamines in drinking water. Canada already has water guidelines for N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), the main nitrosamine produced from disinfection.

The U of A research team has extensively studied NDMA and other nitrosamines in Canadian drinking water to increase our understanding of these compounds and help minimize exposure. This new research partnership will significantly advance that work, said Li, a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

“This project is a perfect example of an international collaboration—and multidisciplinary expertise—that will help shape public policy on drinking water quality,” she said.

Li’s team joins the overall project, led by Stuart Krasner of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and co-principal investigator Zia Bukhari at American Water, to identify key factors that contribute to nitrosamine formation, both in treated waste water released into watersheds and in raw water in several Canadian sites.

Nitrosamines are not naturally occurring in water; they are present due to human activity that affects the environment. Concentrations found in drinking water are typically extremely low—far lower than found in some preserved foods.

“The concentration in water is very low, but is that important, and what do we need to do to meet any new regulations?” said Li. “It’s part of a huge debate.”

The involvement of the University of Alberta in this level of cross-institutional collaboration speaks to the scientific leadership and impact of faculty members who do advanced research on water quality, said Renée Elio, associate vice-president of research.

“This study illustrates the complexity of delivering safe drinking water and the role of careful, credible science in developing public policy about water quality and treatment. Dr. Li, Dr. Hrudey and their colleagues here have exceptional experience in this arena,” Elio said.

The $712,000 research project is being funded by a $400,000 grant from the Water Research Foundation with additional funds or in-kind services coming from research partners and participating utilities.