Dirty water

Dirty water

Trent University's Water Quality Centre shows us it's time to clean up our act
March 1, 2006
The idyllic lake region of Ontario known as the Kawarthas—an Ojibwa word meaning “land of shining waters”—seems a fitting location for the world’s leading water quality research centre.

However, at the Water Quality Centre (WQC) based at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, researchers are finding that the shining waters are anything but crystal clean.

Whether it’s because of mercury spewing from coal-burning power plants, sulphur emissions churning from car exhausts, pharmaceuticals consumed by hundreds of millions of people daily and then expelled or improperly discarded, or endless household and personal care products, our water has become the dumping ground for a myriad of hazardous and toxic materials that the centre tracks.

“The centre has been much more successful than even we had hoped for,” says founding WQC Director Douglas Evans. It houses 14 mass spectrometers—one of the largest collections of such instruments dedicated to environmental science in North America—and the university’s largest research group.

The mass spectrometers allow scientists to go beyond simply quantifying how much of a contaminant exists to actually determining the source of that pollutant. Researchers can, for instance, identify sources of particular metals by the ratio of their isotopes.

“Since many metals have multiple isotopes, the ratios act like a fingerprint,” says WQC’s current Director Peter Dillon, whose 20 years of research includes how to track mercury emissions.

The centre can precisely measure seven different mercury isotopes, and depending on the combination of those isotopes in a mercury sample, researchers can tell if it’s the result of coal burning, a waste landfill site, wetlands, or another source.

“The objective is to ultimately name the type of coal or the source of coal, and trace it back to the power plant,” says Dillon. Finding the source is important, especially since mercury emissions from burning coal can rise high in the atmosphere and spread a far distance. In fact, mercury pollution comes from as far away as China to Canada and the Arctic. This is particularly worrisome as China rapidly increases its use of coal for power, and with it, mercury and other emissions.

Once in the air, water, and soil, mercury levels can be staggering. “We’ve been working with minks and otters... they have concentrations that if found in humans, we’d probably be dead,” says Evans.

Chris Metcalfe leads another area of research that has profound regulatory implications. He’s investigating the quantity and impact of antidepressants, antibiotics, other drugs, and health care products in our water.

“If you have a situation as we do in the Kawarthas, one community’s drinking water is the waste from upstream communities,” says Evans. “There is a very real issue of an aging population—the quantity of medications people take, and how much of that ends up in surface waters.”

Metcalfe’s research has made national and international headlines concerning the number of drugs that show up in our drinking water because they do not break down. Some studies state only about a third of the drugs consumed are absorbed in the body; the rest pass through unaltered into our waste water system. Right now, water treatment plants don’t remove them from the water, although remediation and treatment technologies do exist.


The leading-edge analytical processes and methodology developed at the Water Quality Centre have proved invaluable in raising awareness about water quality issues, particularly in the areas of mercury emissions and pharmaceutical contaminants.

“The work on pharmaceuticals has a lot of repercussions in terms of government policy right up to guidelines and objectives,” says Dillon. “A number of post-doctoral students and former graduates have taken what they’ve learned in the centre to help pharmaceutical companies minimize the ability of drugs to pass through normal treatment processes into the environment. At the same time, the research has led to policies and procedures such as limiting the amount of drugs being prescribed at any one time.” This, together with more education about proper disposal of unused pharmaceuticals, will result in less waste that’s flushed down the toilet and into our water.

The research also helps with the implementation of treatment processes to handle new sources of contaminants, and the development of new water quality and emissions regulations.

Notably, the WQC’s work has proved invaluable in other unexpected areas—such as counter-terrorism. Since the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, one of the events most feared by governments and emergency officials is an attack using a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or a “dirty” bomb. This conventional explosive device contains radioactive material, which if detonated, would contaminate an area and the people within it with radiation.

“If someone detonates a dirty bomb, we have first responders who need to be monitored very quickly—we can’t wait four or five days to determine if they have been contaminated,” says Evans. “We developed techniques where we could make those measurements in a few minutes.”

The WQC developed a test method using mass spectrometers that can detect radiation contamination in a urine specimen in as little as 10 minutes, as opposed to days or even weeks using other methods. The WQC’s testing method quickly detects plutoninum, caesium, americium, strontium, radium, and uranium—all of which you might find in a typical dirty bomb.

The WQC has become the “go to” facility for companies in need of complex research and testing analyses—often involving challenging and costly work that other labs don’t want to tackle. “We tend to take on tasks which involve the development of new methods,” affirms Evans.


The Water Quality Centre is supported by grants from the Ontario Research and Development Corporation and Major Facilities Access grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

The facility has become the research backbone for many Trent University scientists and their colleagues from other universities, government, and companies from around the world.

Twelve Canadian universities have partnered with the lab for various analyses, as have 14 international universities and research institutes from Brazil, Germany, the United States, Great Britain, Poland, New Zealand, Norway, and China.

Work is also being done in collaboration with Environment Canada, Health Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, and the Northwest Territory Ministry of Natural Resources.

Recent corporate partners include Gedex, a private company specializing in subsurface imaging technologies, and MDS Sciex, a leading global supplier of analytical instruments and technology solutions, including the mass spectrometers at the WQC.

Learn More

Visit the Canadian Water Network for more about pharmaceuticals in water.

Learn more about METAALICUS, a research program on mercury in the atmosphere.

Read a CBC News overview on biological weapons.