Agilent Technologies has announced it will begin collaborations with the University of Arizona's Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering's BIO5 Institute to develop ways to detect and treat emerging contaminants in drinking water. While a considerable body of work has been done in the area of potable water quality and safety this research stands apart from the rest in the way it treats contaminants as mixtures rather than separate chemicals that are usually targeted individually.

Dr. Shane Snyder - an internationally recognized authority on water contamination from the University of Arizona's Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering who will be heading-up the project explains: "Not only will we investigate known potential threats to water quality, we will also bridge the gap between detection and health by developing methodologies that can screen water for toxicity from multiple compounds."

Emerging Contaminants

While the issue of unsafe drinking water is commonplace in developing countries it is not often thought of in areas such as the United States or Europe. We take clean and safe drinking water for granted because organizations such as the EPA have got our backs on this one - delivering potable water to our homes each and every day. In recent years a new class of contaminant known as "emerging contaminants" has come to light. A study conducted in 2000 by the US Geological Survey's (USGS) Toxic Substances Hydrology Program revealed that of the 139 streams they examined 80 per cent contained emerging contaminants. The most common chemicals found were steroids, antibiotics, non-prescription drugs, caffeine and insect repellent.

Move forward to September 2009 when the EPA released the Contaminant Candidate List 3 (CCL3), a list of 116 drinking water contaminants. These include pharmaceuticals, pesticides, disinfection by-products, chemicals from manufacturing, waterborne pathogens, and biological toxins. An example of example one of these is the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), a class that contains steroids such as cortisone.

These APIs can end up in waste water as a result of bathing, where a person has say been applying cortisone topically to their sore hamstring. These APIs can then make their way into the drinking water and into your body. The effect on humans of consuming such contaminants is still largely unknown however studies on fish that live in streams contaminated by steroids have shown significant hormone disruption. There is also concern that exposure to antibiotics in drinking water could increase the occurrence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria and diseases.

University of Arizona

So ... back to the new research.
Agilent Technologies Inc. and University of Arizona's Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering's collaboration hopes to increase the ability of scientists to accurately detect contamination in water supplies in order to protect the environment and public health.

"The partnership with Agilent allows the University of Arizona to more effectively influence water reuse and desalination strategies by ensuring that the required water quality has been achieved for its intended use," said Dr Snyder.

The deal will see Agilent provide the university and BIO5 with detection equipment. This includes technology that enables the development of chemical signatures unique to a particular water source.

The research will be centered at the BIO5 Institute on the University of Arizona campus, where the infrastructure for cross-cutting work combining biological and chemical research already exists.