Canada’s water is among the safest in the world. This level of assurance has been achieved through quality analysis, but there is much more to learn about what exactly is in our wastewater and how that may impact public health.

Enter the Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) research facility. Embedded within the City of Calgary’s Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the University of Calgary’s ACWA facility is a fully integrated, fully contained university research facility located within an operating industrial wastewater treatment plant. University researchers are working side by side with municipal operators to advance wastewater treatment technologies and knowledge that will lead to cleaner water, a better protected ecosystem, and improved public health.

Later this summer, innovative work will be done that could lead to improved regulations and safety standards for not only Canadian water but for countries right across the globe.

“We will realize many direct benefits […] from this research including more effective watershed stewardship and environmental protection practices that others around the world can learn from,” said Lee Jackson, ACWA scientific director and professor at the University of Calgary. “Working within an operational wastewater treatment facility, and partnering with industry, is vital to ensure our research leads to tangible improvements in solving important problems facing cities everywhere.”

One of those problems is assessing and neutralizing the impact of chemicals and pharmaceuticals entering the water system in greater quantities as our population increases. Jackson said researchers don’t really know everything that is in our wastewater or how these chemicals may be affecting people. ACWA has established 12 experimental streams onsite (more than 3.8 kilometres in total) to replicate natural conditions and to which any number of known effluents can be added to test the effects they have on the fish and plant life present in the water. Experimental streams on this scale do not exist anywhere else in the world.

“Measuring contaminants in animal tissues to see what effect chemicals in effluents have will give us vital insight into the broader impact they might have on public health and the environment,” Jackson said. “Our findings could lead to tougher regulations to make the water safer. Our research facilities will allow us to become a world leader in this area.”

To determine the long-term impacts of these effluents, it is key to look at the generational effects of pollutants on fish growth and development. Can these changes be tracked through successive generations of fish? This is a question a team of biologists is exploring, including Matt Vijayan, a Tier I Canada Research Chair and professor at the University of Calgary.

“We’re looking at contaminants in the water and how these are affecting fish physiology,” Vijayan said. “The idea is to use molecular markers in fish to tell us if the animal is being affected by chemicals in the water. This is a big problem right now because there are a lot of pharmaceuticals going into the wastewater and we don’t know what it’s doing to the animals and which ones are going to experience multigenerational effects. It’s important to start somewhere, and that’s what we’re trying to do in a natural setting.”

While biology researchers study the fish, chemists and veterinary medicine researchers at ACWA are looking at the bacteria in the water being processed by the treatment plant. A DNA library is being created of all the bacteria and pathogens found in wastewater, a task similar to the human genome project.

Bacteria present in wastewater can be a bellwether for emerging public health issues. With all the pharmaceuticals ending up in wastewater, a concern is the emergence of antibiotic resident strains of pathogens.

“ACWA is a leading-edge research facility in the world for studying how antibiotic resistance chains may be transmitted in environmental bacteria that come into the water treatment facility,” said Glen Armstrong, a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary. “We need to know if these are creating bacteria that are becoming resistant to those drugs and, if they are, are those bacteria capable of passing those resistant genes on to serious pathogens, such as the ones I work with, like E. coli. Hopefully we can stay a step ahead of potential superbugs.”

What makes ACWA stand out is the ability to eliminate the distance between the lab bench and field testing. And by combining the research efforts of biologists, chemists, engineers, veterinarians, and medical doctors who are working alongside wastewater treatment plant operators, applicable real-world solutions can be arrived at much more quickly than ever before.

At the same time scientists are studying what is in the water, a team of engineers at ACWA is working on improving the filtration systems that stop pollutants from continuing downstream. ACWA has also partnered with industry, including IBM and Agilent Technologies, to implement comprehensive analytical tools and software designed to help researchers more fully analyze their data.

Processes refined through ACWA will have application far beyond municipal wastewater treatment. For example, they could be used to monitor water activity and quality remotely in isolated communities and they could also lead to the development of “smart sewers” that live-monitor effluent before it reaches the treatment plant. In the energy industry, the technologies could be applied to test and treat wastewater at remote extraction or processing sites.

“As safe as our water is in Canada, there are still many unknowns regarding what controls rates of processes in treatment plants,” Jackson said. “We need to learn more so we can establish more safety nets.

“One person’s wastewater is another person’s drinking water. We better know what’s going into it and what kind of impact it’s having so we can have safe water for everyone.”  WC

Sean Myers is a media relations advisor at the University of Calgary. This article appears in Water Canada’s July/August 2015 issue.


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