Breaking new ground in wastewater treatment
SCIENTISTS AIM TO LESSEN HARM FROM WHAT WE PUT DOWN THE DRAIN
By NICHOLAS WRIGHT
What’s in our water?
This may sound like a simple question that deserves a straightforward answer, but the content of our rivers and sewers is a complex issue.
It is easy to take water treatment for granted. A simple flush of the toilet or turn of the tap is often the only contact the public has with wastewater management in the city.
However, a substantial amount of work goes on behind the scenes to make sure that what we do flush down the drain — and later, perhaps, put in our glasses — meets the highest standards for health and safety.
Leland Jackson, executive director of Advances in Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) and a professor of biological sciences at the University of Calgary (U of C), says that although people “don’t really like to talk about wastewater,” it is an important part of environmental and human health.
ACWA is made up of a multi-disciplinary team of engineers, biologists, geologists and medical scientists within the U of C’s new Institute of Environmental Toxicology. It works in partnership with the City of Calgary to develop new technologies that improve the efficiency of wastewater-treatment processes and enhance the removal of contaminants from the wastewater itself.
The $30-million project is funded through the City of Calgary, the U of C, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Government of Alberta.
“Wastewater treatment has been around for hundreds of years and the basic processes today haven’t really changed much. Wastewater comes in, you remove the particles, try to let bugs clean up some of the water and the water that is left (also known as effluent) gets discharged into the environment,” Jackson says.
“However, what has changed are the number of chemicals and the nature of those chemicals that are used during everyday life.”
These “emerging compounds” that Jackson mentions include everything from birth control pills and arthritis medication to laundry detergents and chemotherapy drugs. These substances make it into our wastewater systems in many ways — such as through human use, consumption or disposal — and can have detrimental effects on our environment and our physical health.
“Wastewater treatment plants were never designed to remove those (compounds). The technology, in terms of medicine and improving quality of life is much better, and has advanced at a much higher rate than wastewater treatment has,” Jackson explains.
“What ACWA is trying to do is remove these types of compounds without producing more harmful compounds and making the effluent cleaner and therefore safer for those who are downstream.”
Hamid Habibi, executive director of the U of C’s Institute of Environmental Toxicology, co-authored a study with Jackson in 2010 that raised concerns about how these compounds are affecting life in the southern Alberta river system.
The study provided evidence of a highly-skewed female-to-male sex ratio for the longnose-dace fish species in the Old Man River — a nearly 90-10 split. Habibi describes this as a “real concern” for those studying environmental contaminants.
“What that is telling us is that there are environmental elements that are mimicking estrogen — a critical factor in determining sexual development of a female,” he says. Adding that the same hormonal process could take place in reptiles, birds or humans.
“When we see that in fish, it is alarming.”
Both Habibi and Jackson cite the study as an example of how environmental health, and in turn human health, can be jeopardized by various chemicals used by industrial, agricultural and medical industries going through water systems and then into our lakes and rivers.
What about Calgary?
According to the City of Calgary website, wastewater treatment facilities in the city treat enough wastewater to fill 128 olympic-sized pools everyday.
Both Jackson and Habibi agree that the City of Calgary does an exemplary job treating its wastewater.
ACWA’s work with the City of Calgary is an example of how the city is committed to be on the leading edge of wastewater practices, Habibi says. As a part of the group’s project, the city has allowed scientists and researchers to build a forthcoming state-of-the-art lab at their Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Centre to conduct their work — the only one of its kind in the world according to the City of Calgary.
Habibi says he doesn’t know of any other municipality that would invest $5 million to promote such technology and give researchers opportunity to build research stations in city wastewater treatment plants.
The lab — which is currently under construction — will include 12 man-made streams that will allow the team to mimic large-scale water processes.
The scale will be similar to what one might see from a small city, Habibi says.
“Being able to test at these scales is vital to advancing the research,” Jackson says. “Approximately 4.2 million litres of wastewater are produced by the city of Calgary everyday, and the processes that happen on (that) scale don’t happen at the same rate as they do in a 1-litre beaker.”
Since much of ACWA’s work will be done at the lab, and on such a large scale, both Jackson and Habibi say that the benefits for the city could be great.
“It actually provides a very interesting perspective for the technology transfer,” Habibi says, “because the City of Calgary would be the direct beneficiary of (the work).”
Jackson adds that this partnership should help facilitate the transition from developing the wastewater technology to its adoption at the full scale.
The Sky is Not Falling
Habibi, a tap-water drinker, made a point of saying that Calgary’s water situation is not dire.
“The sky is not falling,” he says. “We do have evidence of contaminants in the environment, but they are not yet at the level that is really going to alarm us.
“However, (the public) should also know that if we do not do anything about it now, the status quo will get us to the stage that it would be very severe.”