Toxicology still not as popular as mixology

A new team of toxic crusaders is on the job at the University of Calgary.

The U of C’s new Institute of Environmental Toxicology aims to clean up chemicals and other toxins that can harm the environment.

“The IET is a multi-disciplinary institute based in the faculty of science,” said U of C professor and IET director Hamid Habibi. The IET, established July 2010, is a collaboration between prominent members of different disciplines including biological science, medicine, geology and engineering — all with the common goal of reducing harmful toxins in the environment.

The U of C is working alongside the University of Lethbridge and the University of Alberta on the IET programming.

Habibi said the institute is currently tackling four projects. One seeks to develop new technologies to improve the efficiency of the wastewater treatment process and the removal of contaminants from municipal discharge. The project, known as the Advances in Canadian Wastewater Assets, is led by U of C professor and ACWA executive director Leland Jackson and includes a multidisciplinary team including City of Calgary officials.

“ACWA treats wastewater in two main ways — destroy them chemically by oxidizing contaminants, and mechanically through ultra-filtration,” said Jackson.

Oxidization can be done with use of ozone or hydrogen peroxide coupled with ultra-violet radiation. Ultra-filtration is accomplished through filters with various pore sizes.

“Keep in mind that these are large volumes of wastewater and are by no means easy to filter” he said.

Jackson also mentioned the use of the word “contaminants” not only includes drugs and other harmful chemicals, but also viruses and bacteria. If pathogens are found in wastewater scientists can use this as an indicator the population may be getting sick.

“[ACWA] allows science to develop new policy about what can be released into the environment,” said Jackson. “I think ACWA’s most important contribution is protecting both the environment and human health.”

ACWA received over $10 million in funding from the Alberta Science and Research Investments Program for their wastewater treatment project, along with an additional $20 million from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the City of Calgary over the last 10 years.

Another initiative from the faculty of medicine looks at how environmental contaminants may be related to inflammatory bowel disease.

“Inflammatory bowel disease can be caused by chemical-induced disruption of the immune and hormonal system,” said Habibi. “The study will investigate the relationship between incidents of inflammatory bowel disease and contaminants in the environment.”

The third team will study the impact of tailing ponds and heavy metal contaminants from mining activities, focusing on remediation and risk assessment of contaminated sites.

Scientists are also investigating adverse impact of environmental contaminants such as herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and chemicals that are used in feedlot operations, on animal and human health.

“Emphasis will be placed on the impact of contaminants on incidence of hormone-dependant cancers as well as reproductive and developmental disorders,” said Habibi.

“Training is a big aspect of this institute at both the undergraduate and graduate level,” said Habibi.

“The biggest benefit for students who get involved is the aspect of working in a multi-disciplinary environment. Masters and PhD students have the opportunity to work in various different labs and then eventually specialize.”

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