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New invention aims to 'zap' harmful chemicals from B.C.'s drinking water

Engineers at UBC will be piloting a new water treatment in the Lower Mainland next month, to remove "forever chemicals" from drinking water.

Cleaner drinking water is on the horizon for a number of B.C. communities as a team of engineers is designing new technology to zap harmful chemicals. 

Madjid Mohseni has developed the technology with a group of engineers at the University of British Columbia to remove PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) — also known as "forever chemicals" — from drinking water.

“Think Brita filter, but a thousand times better,” says Mohseni.

The UBC chemical and biological engineering professor says the technology removes the chemicals safely, efficiently and for good. 

Forever chemicals often appear in non-stick or stain-resistant products. They can also make their way into people’s bodies from cosmetics and sunscreens.

Mohseni and his team created an adsorbing material that is capable of trapping and holding all the chemicals present in the water.

Earlier this year, scientists found that the long-lasting chemicals negatively impact whales in B.C.

“We know that it can impair the nervous system, also the cognitive function... It can also affect the reproductive development of the animals,” he told Glacier Media. “We know that there are immunotoxins, which means the animal can be more susceptible to pathologies or emerging infectious diseases.”

The chemicals, which last a long time in the environment, are widely used in food-packaging materials, water-repellent fabrics, cookware and fire extinguishers. 

'Forever chemicals' linked to health issues

Research has shown that these chemicals cause health problems, including hormonal cardiovascular disease, development delays and cancer. 

While PFAS are no longer manufactured in Canada, they are still in many consumer products that end up in the environment.

Mohseni says PFAS particles can be regenerated and were not previously being zapped.

"This means that when we scrub off the PFAS from these materials, we do not end up with more highly toxic solid waste that will be another major environmental challenge,” he says.

Now, his team will destroy the PFAS using electrochemical and photochemical techniques. 

Mohseni believes more people have exposure to the chemicals through drinking water and food, which is more prevalent in areas that have contaminated water sources. 

"Our adsorbing [materials] are particularly beneficial for people living in smaller communities who lack resources to implement the most advanced and expensive solutions that could capture PFAS,” he says. 

He suggests using the new technology in-home water treatments to absorb the harmful substances.

When does the project start?

The team is preparing the new technology and will start putting it to work at a number of locations in B.C. starting in March, according to a UBC spokesperson. Pilot testing will begin on Vancouver Island and then move to the Lower Mainland in April.