The next generation of researchers at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) are leveraging their training to advance innovative solutions to water-related issues ranging from infrastructure planning for climate change adaptation, to bacteria in plumbing systems, to plastic pollution.
Three graduate students – Yena Bassone-Quashie, Nate Clark, and Eric Fries – are taking different but vital research approaches to water issues. Bassone-Quashie, an Environmental Applied Science and Management PhD candidate, is researching decision-making policy and infrastructure planning for climate change adaptation. Fellow Environmental Applied Science and Management PhD candidate, Clark, is investigating the efficacy of silver peroxide as a viable alternative disinfectant to protect against Legionella bacteria. Molecular Science master’s student, Fries, is examining the chemical contamination resulting from plastics in our water.
“These three graduate researchers have demonstrated a high level of achievement in their respective fields of study, all driving innovative solutions for critical water-related concerns. As new and upcoming water professionals, together with their peers, they are shaping the future of urban water,” said Steven N. Liss, TMU’s vice-president, research and innovation.
Adapting policy and infrastructure for climate change
As municipalities plan for infrastructure to accommodate the impacts of climate change, there is a “deep uncertainty” that affects both planning and policy. Preparing to adapt municipal water infrastructure for the future of climate change is a complex issue, Yena Bassone-Quashie, who is a PhD candidate under the supervision of professor Carolyn Johns, explains. This uncertainty can influence decision-makers’ strategic approaches and potentially result in what is known as an adaptation implementation gap. Her research focuses specifically on flood resilience and will include developing and testing an adaptive infrastructure planning and decision-making approach that fills such a gap for Ontario municipalities.
Bassone-Quashie says that in response to flooding, municipalities can adopt a monitor-and-adapt strategy. While it can be difficult to put adaptive plans into practice because of the long-term nature of climate change and the requirement for dedicated resources, there is already an established infrastructure planning approach, developed and utilized in the Netherlands, known as Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways (DAPP). Bassone-Quashie will test DAPP in the context of Ontario and develop a municipality-specific implementation framework that will support a shift to monitor-and-adapt plans and infrastructure as new information emerges.
Bassone-Quashie’s research is informed by her extensive professional experience as a water resources engineer. Bassone-Quashie is the 2023 recipient of the Nicholas Reid Memorial Award and was selected for a 2022-23 Geoffrey F. Bruce Fellowship in Canadian Freshwater Policy.
Decreasing bacteria in plumbing systems
According to Nate Clark, who is supervised by professor Steven N. Liss, the number of infections and outbreaks of Legionnaires’ Disease, a severe type of pneumonia caused by water-borne Legionella bacteria, is increasing worldwide. He noted there are multiple likely factors behind the rise of both. These include increased testing and improved detection technologies as well as warmer surface water from climate change, which serves as a more effective breeding ground for bacteria.
Legionella bacteria are frequently found in human-built water infrastructure. While the temperature of hot water tanks is often set high enough to kill bacteria, and chlorine is commonly used as a disinfectant in water systems, Legionella infections are still increasing.
To address these concerns and explore an alternative disinfectant, Clark is investigating the efficacy and stability of silver peroxide, a combination of silver and hydrogen peroxide. Both silver and hydrogen peroxide have long histories individually as disinfectants, but as Clark explained, it is only recently that the “synergistic killing power” that comes from mixing the two has started to be recognized.
His research focuses on the potential of applying silver peroxide to protect against the Legionella bacteria at both the point of entry and point of use in a building’s plumbing system. His initial test-tube-based experiments showed promising results, and he has moved on to the next phase of experiments in a lab that simulates a home plumbing system. Clark’s presentation of this research at TMU’s Three-Minute Thesis (3MT®) Competition was recognized with the Participant’s Choice Award.
Identifying and analyzing plastic pollution sources
Chemical contamination in water from leached plastic additives is a significant water quality concern. Eric Fries’ research, as part of professor Roxana Suehring’s Emerging Contaminants Lab, focuses on these additives, such as flame retardants or surface coatings, that enter the water, are not filtered out by water treatment processes and move around. These pollutants are called persistent, mobile and toxic (or PMTs) and accumulate in the aquatic environment over time.
To measure chemicals present in water samples and identify which plastic product they come from, Fries, who recently defended his master’s thesis on this topic, created tools using mass spectrometry. He then developed a “leaching protocol” to test the speed and concentrations of the chemicals seeping out of plastic products such as face masks, bottle caps, foam packaging and toy balls. His research has found that toy balls and medical-grade face masks release some of the highest amounts of PMTs.
“We can use this information to prioritize which may be a greater threat,” Fries said. This new method enables the identification of plastic pollution sources and helps to advance our understanding of how to prioritize and mitigate PMT pollution. Fries noted an absence of regulation around PMTs and says his research could help inform policy and regulations aimed at managing and reducing plastic pollution.
Graduate students from across TMU conduct water-related research across a variety of disciplines. Learn more about graduate programs in water research at TMU and our hiring programs.
Learn more about research at Urban Water TMU.
Read more about Yena Bassone-Quashie’s recently published early research in The Journal of Water and Climate Change about the issues of decision-making under deep uncertainty in a water governance context.
Learn more about Eric Fries’ research on identifying plastic additives and developing a prioritization list published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts.