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University of Waterloo leads team investigating 'forever chemicals' in Canadian water systems


University of Waterloo is leading an interdisciplinary team to identify and treat per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) - better known as forever chemicals – in water systems affecting more than 2.5 million Canadians.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) is providing the funding to detect, identify and treat PFAS-contaminated water, the university said in a media release.

PFAS are a new class of more than 4,000 environmental contaminants whose impact on human health is unknown, the university said. PFAS are used in a wide range of products such as cosmetics, textiles, fire-fighting foams and food packaging materials.

“Traditional water treatment methods are ineffective at destroying these chemicals,” Scott Hopkins, project lead and a professor in Waterloo’s Department of Chemistry said in the release. “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. As a result, pollutants will stay in their ecosystems and biomagnify, or build-up, in the local food web.”

Hopkins has partnered with professor Franco Berruti from Western University, Canadian water associations and seven regional water supply systems in Ontario.

“To tackle large, complex issues like this, you need to engage many experts who bring unique and valuable skills to the table. 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.”

Samples will be taken along various points throughout the treatment process. Researchers will focus on catchment areas of 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.

Hopkins and his team will screen samples for PFAS post-treatment and create AI tools to help analysis and treatment process optimization.

“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,” said Hopkins.

Western will develop treatment methods for contaminated solid wastes.

“This funding allows us to further our advancements in best practices for removing forever chemicals from Canada’s water supply,” said Franco Berruti, a professor from Western University.

The research project will determine which PFAS are present in Ontario waters and provide key information to Canadian water systems of potential PFAS contaminants and treatment options. Top Stories

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