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UWaterloo leads new PFAS investigation into seven Ontario water systems

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The new project will see water samples taken from input and along various points throughout the treatment process to determine which PFAS are present in Ontario waters, as well as the chemical and physical processes underpinning treatment technologies. Photo Credit: madamlead, stock.adobe.com

The University of Waterloo is leading an interdisciplinary research team that hopes to unlock key information that will inform Canadian water systems about potential PFAS contaminants and treatment options that could impact millions of Canadians.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – commonly referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ — will be monitored through the treatment process of seven Ontario water supply systems under the new research. The project will determine which PFAS are present in Ontario waters, as well as the chemical and physical processes underpinning treatment technologies for these thermodynamically stable and carcinogenic environmental contaminants historically used in products such as cosmetics, textiles, firefighting foams and food packaging materials.

“Many smaller Canadian communities do not have the capacity to test for pollutants like PFAS or the ability to implement new water and wastewater treatment technologies,” said Scott Hopkins, project lead and professor in Waterloo’s Department of Chemistry. “As a result, pollutants will stay in their ecosystems and biomagnify, or build up, in the local food web.”

Traditional water treatment methods are ineffective at destroying these chemicals, added Hopkins, who says the carbon fluorine bond formed in PFAS is one of the strongest in chemistry. His team will focus on the detection, characterization, and use of machine learning models to predict the physicochemical properties of PFAS and the transformation products generated by the treatment processes.

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The new project will see water samples taken from input and along various points throughout the treatment process. Researchers will focus on the following catchment areas: Union Water Supply System; Lake Huron Primary Water Supply System; Elgin Area Primary Water Supply System; Lambton Area Water Supply System; Peel Region; the City of Cornwall Water System; and the cities of Durham and London.

“Our specialty in ion mobility and mass spectrometry allows us to separate complex mixtures and see what’s in them,” said Hopkins. “We also use machine learning to infer things about the chemical processes that we’re dealing with and find the optimal treatment conditions so we can make the best use of the instrumentation we have.”

Hopkins has partnered with professor Franco Berruti from Western University. Western will focus on the treatment as Berruti and his colleagues at the Institute for Chemicals and Fuels from Alternative Resources have already made considerable advances in the destruction of PFAS in biosolids using pyrolysis, and in water via UV treatment.

Also partnering on the research project will be USP Technologies, Brown and Caldwell, the Ontario Clean Water Agency, Ontario Water Consortium, Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, as well as the seven regional water supply systems.

“Our team has leading experts in chemistry, chemical engineering, artificial intelligence, water treatment, policy and regulation,” said Hopkins. “We have members from academia, industry, non-profit, and government agencies, all invested in solving this problem.”

The research will be funded by an Alliance Option 2 grant under the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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