Although America’s supply of drinking water is con­sid­ered among the world’s safest, there is an urgent need to develop more strin­gent reg­u­la­tions to guide how water is mon­i­tored for pol­lu­tants, according to April Gu, assis­tant pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. Gu is working on the fun­da­mental research under­lying our ability to iden­tify and mon­itor real and poten­tial pol­lu­tants in water and remove them at lower cost than is now possible.

Funded by the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and the Water Envi­ron­ment Research Foun­da­tion, Gu and her col­leagues hope to pro­vide the nec­es­sary infor­ma­tion to improve—both in cost and efficiency—how water treat­ment facil­i­ties remove pol­lu­tants from waste­water before it is released into the environment—our bays, har­bors, rivers, and lakes.

Boston’s largest waste­water treat­ment facility, housed on Deer Island, treats 370 mil­lion gal­lons of sewage each day from 43 com­mu­ni­ties in Mass­a­chu­setts. Gu is looking at how a treat­ment facility like this can improve cur­rent con­t­a­m­i­nant removal processes to make the water safer.

She is exploring a method to mon­itor how genes in bac­teria are expressed when exposed to emerging con­t­a­m­i­nants, including nano­ma­te­rials and other toxic com­pounds that are prod­ucts of new technology-​​driven indus­tries. The data col­lected on the genetic reac­tions will pro­vide fun­da­mental tox­i­city data about the chem­i­cals present in the water. This, said Gu, would pro­vide a sci­en­tific basis on which to develop updated and accu­rate fed­eral water regulations.

Indus­tri­al­iza­tion has led to a dra­matic increase in the number of poten­tial toxins in our water supply, yet we do not have suf­fi­cient mon­i­toring sys­tems in place that can detect them,” said Gu. “This sophis­ti­cated and reli­able tech­nique will help researchers eval­uate and iden­tify a greater number of poten­tial con­t­a­m­i­nants, vastly improving our water assess­ment processes.”

Gu and her col­leagues are also exam­ining the impact of wastewater-​​derived organic nutri­ents on eutroph­i­ca­tion, a process that leads to the over­growth of nutri­ents in lakes, streams, rivers and other bodies of fresh water. The abun­dance of these nutri­ents, such as nitrogen and phos­pho­rous, causes exces­sive growth of algae and other aquatic plants, which in turn causes fish and shell­fish and other plant species to die from a lack of oxygen.

Eutroph­i­ca­tion decreases the resource value of rivers, lakes and estu­aries, and is still the leading cause of dete­ri­o­ra­tion in our nation’s water supply, said Gu, whose research also focuses on improving ways to remove this form of pollution.

We need to better mon­itor the water for pol­lu­tants, and most impor­tantly, develop inno­v­a­tive and cost-​​effective ways to remove these pol­lu­tants to make drinking water as safe as pos­sible,” she said.

To learn more about the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, visit http://​www​.civ​.neu​.edu/