Keeping drugs out of drinking water

As health officials fret about pharmaceuticals leaching into water supplies, four chemical engineering students say they've developed a new way to keep drinking water free from harmful compounds.

As health officials fret about pharmaceuticals leaching into water supplies, towns across the country host drug drop-off days and encourage residents not to flush old and unused medications down the toilet.

But students at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, say they've developed a better way to keep pharmaceuticals out of our water supply. Four chemical engineering students created an advanced waste water treatment system that would use available technology to remove 90 percent of pharmaceuticals and other compounds from the supply.

The students, Kirill Cheiko, Reuben Fernandes, Charles Gilmour and Pawel Kita, used research data to design a simulated waste water treatment plant that would handle the waste from pharmaceuticals.

In their design, waste water is first subjected to membrane biological reactors and then sent through an advanced oxidation process to destroy toxins. But instead of using chlorine as a disinfectant -- as many waste water treatment plants do -- the students' design would use ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide. When the process was complete, the waste water would be clean enough to safely add to lakes and rivers, the students said.

In 2008, the Associated Press reported that pharmaceuticals could be found in the drinking water supplies of 41 million Americans. The concentrations, though, were in tiny amounts and scientists have yet to determine the long-term effects of pharmaceuticals in the water supply.

"We are working with a cautionary principle," Fernandes said. "It's worth our time to work on this problem."

The waste water treatment project won first place for social awareness and received an honorable mention at the 2010 Ontario Engineering Competition. The group is seeking funding to test their proposal.

Photo: The developers of a method to keep pharmaceuticals out of the water supply. From left, Kita, Gilmour, Fernandes and Cheiko. / Dario Ruberto, Ryerson University

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