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Water and public health

Clean water is often taken for granted in the UK, but this fundamental basis for good health is not so readily available in many countries worldwide. We are looking at the key relationship between water and public health to identify ways in which we can better detect harmful chemicals, pollutants and bacteria in the water system. Our research aims to improve the quality of water and to positively contribute to public health worldwide.

Current projects

Electric bugs used to detect water pollution

Principal investigator: Dr Mirella Di Lorenzo

Murchison Falls on the Victoria Nile, northern Uganda

Dr Mirella Di Lorenzo collaborated with the Bristols Robotics Laboratory at the University of West England (UWE) to develop a low-cost device to monitor water quality that can be used in developing countries. The sensor was created using 3D printing technology and can be used directly in rivers and lakes for continuous water monitoring.

The sensor contains bacteria that produce a small measurable electric current as they feed and grow. When the bacteria are disturbed by coming into contact with toxins in the water, the electric current drops, alerting to the presence of pollutants in the water.

Chemical sensors for water pollutants

Principal investigator: Professor Frank Marken

We are developing nano-sized chemical sensors with the aim of picking out extremely low levels of dangerous compounds in the environment.

Currently, testing for these compounds requires specialist equipment, making it a slow and expensive process. By developing small, cheap sensors this research aims to make detection instant. The group led by Professor Frank Marken is developing junction sensors giving off signals which alert researchers to the presence of pollutants. These technologies could allow researchers to detect minute quantities of dangerous compounds in the environment allowing those monitoring contaminants to do so at lower cost and with greater opportunity for timely intervention.

Detecting diseases in drinking water

Principal investigator: Professor Tim Birks

Child drinking water from pipe

The microbe Cryptosporidium in drinking water causes severe diarrhoea, especially in young children, and can be fatal to people with compromised immunity. It is resistant to many water treatment methods, and water supplies must be monitored daily. Current detection methods are slow and expensive, requiring microscopic examination by skilled scientists.

Professor Tim Birks is leading research into more efficient ways of detecting faecal microbes in water by developing an instrument for rapidly detecting oocysts in Cryptosporidium. The technology uses laser light scattering to develop a fingerprint of crypto in water, which helps to detect whether oocysts are viable or not.

Studying chemical pollution in urban water

Principal investigator: Dr Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern

We are studying emerging threats and concerns resulting from chemical pollution in urban water.

The project focuses on chemical pollutants such as pharmaceuticals, endocrine disruptors, pesticides and industrial chemicals. The research led by Dr Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, in collaboration with Wessex Water, will provide better understanding of ecological and human health risks from chemical pollutants released into receiving environment with treated wastewater. We will also aim to identify target compounds which can act as indicators of water contamination.

Sewage profiling at the community level (SEWPROF)

Principal investigator: Dr Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern

Aerial view of sewage treatment plant in UK

We are part of SEWPROF, a €4.2 million research project to develop new technology for public health monitoring. Sewage profiling at the Community level, known as SEWPROF will develop inter-disciplinary and cross-sectoral research capability for the next generation of scientists working in the newly-emerging field of sewage epidemiology.

As part of SEWPROF, Dr Barbara Kaspryzk-Hordern has developed techniques to detect micropollutants such as pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs and personal care products in the water system. We are also studying chemicals in wastewater to determine whether the population in a particular area suffers from health issues such as cancer or infectious disease at a particularly high level. This is a newly-emerging interdisciplinary field with a potential to provide an integrated real-time, early-warning assessment of community-wide health.