ASU scientists study Arizona water

February 4, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: Claudia Koerner , ASU] – Though water coming from the tap or flowing in the Salt River may look clean, researchers said it could be hiding something.

The Water Quality Center at ASU has been researching microbes and chemicals that contaminate Arizona rivers and tap water since 2001 through funding from the National Science Foundation. “Anytime we look for these bugs, they are there,” said Morteza Abbaszadegan, director of the center. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Arizonans are in danger, Abbaszadegan added.”So far, so good,” he said. “We do not find them in finished water.”The center’s research affirms the importance of water treatment plants in Arizona, Abbaszadegan added. Because drinking water flows 280 miles from Lake Havasu in open canals, it is even more susceptible to contamination.

The research is compiled into reports, which are available to city governments.”Now the utilities companies know there are such contaminants,” Abbaszadegan said. Determining what particles are in Arizona water also helps utility companies update their facilities and keeps the community aware of potential health concerns, he said. “The level of microbes dictates the level of treatment the cities should provide,” Abbaszadegan said. He added that knowing which microbes are in Arizona rivers can help treatment plants target other factors as well. “One thing that is especially important for central Arizona is taste and odor,” Abbaszadegan said. Through various projects, the center is not only identifying what is in the water, but also finding new methods to treat it, he said.

In 2006, center researchers developed a new tool to detect bacteria in water samples. Unlike standard tests, which take 24 hours, the new machine can determine if water is contaminated within 20 minutes to an hour and a half. “A lot of time, 24 hours is too late,” Abbaszadegan said. BioSense, a bioscience company, has already picked up the new technology, and Abbaszadegan said it has “huge commercial potential.” Graduate students are critical to the research the center performs, and the center’s research has helped at least 15 of them meet graduation requirements, he added.

Tamer Helmy, a life sciences doctoral candidate, is working on a new way of concentrating viruses in a sample to make them easier to detect. “It is important because we need a quick method to alert the public if there is any outbreak of a virus,” Helmy said. “It’s important to everybody.”Other student researchers agreed that the importance of their work to society was one of the reasons they enjoy it.

Dan Gerrity, a civil and environmental engineering doctoral candidate, is working on disinfecting water using a combination of ultraviolet light and semiconductor powder. Gerrity said he thinks this method will be very common in future water treatment plants, which are already changing their technology dramatically. “As we find more chemical and microbial contaminants, we’ll need new ways to treat them,” Gerrity said.

Fellow civil and environmental engineering doctoral candidate Brooke Mayer said she attributes the changing treatment methods to the advances researchers, like those at the Water Quality Center, are making with contaminants. “We’re starting to understand [microbes] better,” Mayer said.