Carleton’s newest Canada Research Chair on quest for safe drinking water

The recent case of water contamination in Walkerton, Ontario, is a pointed reminder that safe and efficient wastewater treatment is among the most pressing issues for cities and towns across Canada. According to environmental engineer Banu Örmeci, new methods of disinfection could be key to ensuring that our water is safe to drink.

Wastewater is contaminated by pathogens (i.e., agents that cause disease), heavy metals, toxic substances, and a variety of chemicals. These chemicals include natural and synthetic hormones, such as those found in birth control pills. Örmeci is the new Canada Research Chair in Wastewater and Public Health Engineering, and her main research focus is the removal of these contaminants from wastewater and the management of leftovers, also known as biosolids or sludge.

As she explains, the typical treatment cycle is a combination of physical, biological and chemical processes as well as a disinfection stage. During the first three processes, organic and inorganic contaminants are removed from wastewater. During disinfection pathogens are killed, often with chlorine.

According to Örmeci, the disinfecting stage has at least two shortcomings: 1) some of the pathogens can survive this process; and 2) sometimes the cure is as bad as the disease—the use of chlorine as a disinfectant can cause the formation of by-products that can be carcinogenic. Her goal is to develop new treatment methods that could minimize or eliminate these risks, and she is particularly interested in the use of ultraviolet (UV) disinfection as an alternative to chlorine.

“UV rays could prove to be a very good disinfectant because nothing is being added to the water. Also, we are finding that these rays are very effective in inactivating certain microorganisms that are resistant to chlorine,” she states. UV light can also be used for the photochemical destruction of toxic compounds in wastewater.

The $500,000 in new funding that comes with the Tier II Canada Research Chair appointment enables Örmeci to pursue this area of inquiry. She also plans to establish a multidisciplinary research program to foster collaborations with other researchers at Carleton and other universities—a program she believes will not only help protect public health and the environment but will also be unique in Canada.

Örmeci will receive an additional grant of $211,490 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation for infrastructure. Currently a member of Carleton’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, she officially takes her new position on January 1, 2007.

Carleton now has 22 Canada Research Chairs. More information about the Canada Research Chair program is available at carleton.ca/research. Further details about Örmeci’s research can be found at www.cee.carleton.ca/faculty/Bio_Faculty.

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