Research

Employing a fundamental understanding of organic chemical reaction pathways, our research explores links between public health, engineering and sustainability. A key focus of our current research is Engineering for the Sustainable Use of Impaired Waters 

The shortage of clean water represents a critical challenge for the next century, and has necessitated the use of impaired waters as potable water supplies. We are part of the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for RE-Inventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWit), a collaboration between Stanford, Berkeley, the Colorado School of Mines and New Mexico State University. Recent droughts in Texas and California have exacerbated routine water shortages in the arid southwest.  While there has been some interest among the public in seawater desalination, utilities are far more focused on the recycling of municipal wastewaters, the reclamation of brackish groundwaters, and capture of urban stormwater, because these options employ far less energy than seawater desalination. Current projects include: 

Health Risks from Byproducts of Food Disinfection

PhD Candidate: Adam Simpson 

Chlorine disinfection of produce and meats in food processing facilities serves as a critical control point to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses. Following the discovery that chlorine disinfectant reactions with organic matter in drinking water supplies produces carcinogenic byproducts (e.g., haloacetic acids), drinking water disinfectant exposures have been moderated to balance the risks posed by pathogens and chemical byproducts.  The goal of this research is to develop a similar balance for food disinfection. Byproduct formation may be far more significant in food than in drinking water given that orders of magnitude higher chlorine doses (~100 mg/L vs. 2 mg/L) and precursor concentrations (solid produce vs. 1 mg/L) occur in food.  The project is characterizing new byproducts from chlorine reactions with food biomolecules that are relevant to consumer exposure because they remain in the food (unlike haloacetic acids). Initial results indicate that the toxicity associated with consumption of chlorotyrosine byproducts retained in protein within a spinach salad is roughly two-fold higher than the risks posed by regulated byproducts in chlorinated drinking waters. 

Read more: Komaki, Y.; Simpson, A.M.-A.; Choe, J.K.; Plewa, M.J.; Mitch, W.A. Chlorotyrosines versus volatile byproducts from chlorine disinfection during washing of spinach and lettuce. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2018, 52, 9361-9369. (Full Text)

Linking Anaerobic Secondary Treatment to Water Reuse

PhD Candidate: Alex Szczuka

Anaerobic biological secondary treatment can lower the energy cost of wastewater treatment by more than 75%, and reduce the costs associated with secondary solids disposal by more than 90%. However, demonstrating that anaerobically-treated wastewater can be reused is essential to both the adoption of anaerobic treatment technologies and increasing the sustainability of our water supply. For potable applications, treated wastewater is purified by membrane-based treatment technologies, such as reverse osmosis, which removes contaminants by size exclusion, and advanced oxidation processes, which remove contaminants by chemical oxidation. Prior to these treatments, anaerobic effluent must be disinfected, and the method of disinfection can effect the performance of downstream treatment units, and the formation disinfection by-products. The goal of this project is to evaluate the suitability of anaerobically-treated wastewater as a source water for potable water production. Compared to traditional effluents, we found that the organics in anaerobically-treated effluents have a lower propensity to foul membranes, and the disinfection byproduct formation from anaerobic effluents can be ten-fold lower. However, sulfide present in anaerobically-treated wastewater can render disinfection difficult, and developing optimal strategies for disinfection of sulfide-rich effluents is ongoing.

Read more: Szczuka, A.; Berglund-Brown, J.P.; Chen, H.K.; Quay, A.N.; Mitch, W.A. Evaluation of a Pilot Anaerobic Secondary Effluent for Potable Reuse: Impact of Different Disinfection Schemes on Organic Fouling of RO Membranes and DBP Formation. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2019, 53, 3166-3176 (Full Text)

Toxicity of Disinfection Byproducts (DBPs) in Potable Reuse Waters

PostDoc: Stephanie Lau 

Potable reuse of municipal wastewater is expected to become more widespread as pristine drinking water sources become increasingly scarce. Nonetheless, concerns about the safety of potable reuse waters remain. Disinfection byproducts (DBPs) are anticipated to be the major contributor to chemical toxicity in treated waters, and information on the toxicity of DBPs in potable reuse waters is currently limited. The goals of our research are to (1) quantify the chemical toxicity of potable reuse waters relative to conventional drinking water and (2) identify the DBPs that contribute most significantly to the toxicity of treated waters. We have developed a solid-phase extraction (SPE) method to concentrate DBPs, which typically occur at low concentrations (ng/L to μg/L) in real waters, so that they can be subjected to bioassays by our collaborators, Drs Michael Plewa (U Illinois) and Matias Attene-Ramos (George Washington University). Our SPE approach is able to capture a wider array of DBPs than the conventionally used XAD resins. We will extract DBPs from potable reuse waters and evaluate the toxicity of these waters using in vitro cytotoxicity assays. In order to quantify the contributions of various DBPs to overall toxicity of the water, we prepare defined mixtures of DBPs based on the concentrations of DBPs previously measured in real waters and subjected them to cytotoxicity assays. Initial results indicate that unregulated DBPs are much more important contributors to the toxicity of disinfected waters than regulated DBPs. Among the volatile and semi-volatile DBPs that are routinely monitored, haloacetonitriles (HANs) are shown to be key drivers of toxicity and merit further investigation into their risk to public health.

Mechanism of Sunscreen Toxicity to Corals and Sea Anemones

PhD Student: Djordje Vuckovic

Sunscreen has been linked to coral bleaching and death at order of magnitude lower concentrations than found at coral reef sites. The sunscreens are introduced into the sites by tourists, often as part of eco-tourism groups. As the presence of sunscreens cannot be avoided, (the visits are crucial for coral reef conservation and sunscreen is necessary for protection against skin cancer), it is important to determine which sunscreen components are harming corals and why. In our research, we are using sea anemones as coral prototypes, to elucidate a toxicity mechanism common to several of the most frequently used organic sunscreens. Like corals, sea anemones have symbiotic relationships to algae. We are finding that a large amount of hydrophobic sunscreen accumulates in the sea anemones and is bio-metabolized into more toxic compounds. Understanding the chemical mechanism of their toxicity should aid development of coral-safe sunscreens.

 

Public Health Implications of Exposure to Wastewater-Associated Disinfection Byproducts 

PhD Candidate: Kirin Emlet Furst

Communities around the world increasingly rely on sources of drinking water that are contaminated by municipal wastewater. Disinfection of drinking water is critical to protect public health from waterborne pathogens, particularly in wastewater-impacted source waters. Unfortunately, in addition to inactivating pathogens, disinfectants react with dissolved organic matter to form a wide variety of contaminants known as disinfection byproducts. Several classes of disinfection byproducts that are of particular toxicological concern have been associated with wastewater-derived precursors. The goal of this research is to examine the public health implications of wastewater-associated disinfection byproducts by estimating their contributions to toxicity in various source waters and treatment scenarios. These include potable reuse of municipal wastewater effluents in the high-income countries and use of sewage-impacted drinking water supplies in low-income countries. Initial results indicate that haloacetonitriles and haloacetamides may be a significant concern in wastewater-impacted drinking waters. However, little is known about the mechanisms of exposure to these disinfection byproduct classes. We are developing novel sampling methods to enable the translation of concentrations in water to exposure via ingestion and bathing.

Read more: Furst, K.E.; Pecson, B.M.; Webber, B.D.; Mitch, W.A. Tradeoffs between pathogen inactivation and disinfection byproduct formation during sequential chlorine and chloramine disinfection for wastewater reuse. Water Res. 2018, 143, 579-588. (Full Text)

Development of an Electrochemical Advanced Oxidation Process for Potable Reuse Facilities

PhD Student: Cindy Weng 

Advanced treatment trains for the potable reuse of municipal wastewater rely on the multiple barrier approach to remove the wide array of chemical contaminants in wastewater.  A typical treatment train combines broad-screen physical removal using reverse osmosis (RO) membranes with advanced oxidation processes (AOPs), which generate radicals to degrade a broad array of chemical contaminants that may pass through RO membranes. Currently, most potable reuse facilities employ the UV/hydrogen peroxide AOP, which generates hydroxyl radical (*OH) by the UV photolysis of hydrogen peroxide (HOOH). UV photolysis of hydrogen peroxide is inefficient, with only ~10% of the hydrogen peroxide used despite application of UV doses ~10-fold greater than needed for disinfection. Utilities are also interested in alternatives to RO-based treatment trains (e.g., ozone/biological activated carbon), but their effluents have lower UV transmittance (UVT), hindering the performance of subsequent UV-based AOPs. We are developing a novel AOP to generate radicals electrochemically.  We are finding that this AOP is more efficient than the current UV/hydrogen peroxide AOP and can be applied to low UVT waters.

Treatment of Concentrates from Reverse Osmosis Processes at Potable Reuse Facilities

PhD Student: Jack King 

Reverse osmosis (RO) treatment serves as an effective physical barrier to remove a wide range of pathogens, chemical contaminants and salts from municipal wastewater within potable reuse treatment trains, but RO generates a concentrate containing these contaminants.  There are growing concerns about the impacts of the discharge of these concentrates to receiving waters.  While salts are a primary concern for discharge to inland waters, pathogens and the toxicity associated with chemical contaminants are the dominant concerns for discharge to marine waters, particularly poorly flushed estuaries.  We are evaluating the treatment of RO concentrates by a combination of ozone and either biological activated carbon or by engineered wetland treatment (in collaboration with Dr. David Sedlak at UC Berkeley) at pilot-scale at the Valley Water advanced treatment train in San Jose (CA). Key targets include viruses, urban use pesticides and metals.

Last modified Tue, 8 Oct, 2019 at 15:56