Drinking water in the United States is disinfected to prevent illnesses from pathogens, but byproducts formed during disinfection might pose a health risk, a Mason Engineering researcher says.
Kirin Emlet Furst, an assistant professor in the Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering, is researching new methods to evaluate household exposure to hundreds of disinfection byproducts. “I’m especially concerned about a subset of them that can form when drinking water is contaminated with wastewater. They contain nitrogen and have not been studied as much as regulated byproducts," she says.
Municipal wastewater (sewage), which includes fecal matter, beauty products, and anything else put down drains, is usually discharged into rivers and lakes, Those same water bodies can be used by communities downstream as drinking water, Furst says.
Overall, most large water systems, such as in New York City, San Francisco, and Fairfax County, provide high-quality drinking water, but smaller communities often don’t have the resources to treat water to the same level, she says.
Exposure to some disinfection byproducts is linked to bladder cancer, colorectal cancers, and reproductive health problems, which is why some are regulated in the United States. But it isn’t clear whether the regulated byproducts are the cause of health problems, especially because they aren’t very toxic, she says.
Civil engineering associate professor Viviana Maggioni says, “Kirin’s research work is extremely timely, given the current pandemic crises and the increased use of sanitizing products. Exploring the health impacts of disinfection byproducts is crucial to regulate and develop safe processes to treat our waters.”
Besides evaluating household exposure to disinfection byproducts, Furst is developing new approaches to minimize their formation during water treatment.
In the end, she’ll be able to work with epidemiologists to identify which byproducts are most harmful and design affordable engineering strategies to prevent them from forming.
“We want even more people to disinfect their water to protect against viral and bacterial infections, so it is important to minimize new health risks introduced by the disinfection process,” she says.