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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/W037270/1
Title: To Chlorinate or Not to Chlorinate
Principal Investigator: Boxall, Professor J
Other Investigators:
Douterelo Soler, Dr I Speight, Professor V
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Dr K Fish
Project Partners:
Anglian Water Citrox Biosciences Ltd City of Montreal
Drinking Water Inspectorate Drinking Water Quality Regulator Eawag Aquatic Research
Georgia Institute of Technology Imperial College London John Fawell
Morrison Utility Services Nephros, Inc. Northumbrian Water Group plc
Scottish Water Severn Trent Plc Group Southern Cross University
UK Health Security Agency UK Water Industry Research Ltd (UKWIR) United Utilities
Welsh Water (Dwr Cymru) Yorkshire Water
Department: Civil and Structural Engineering
Organisation: University of Sheffield
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 January 2023 Ends: 30 June 2026 Value (£): 1,165,060
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Water Engineering
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
08 Jun 2022 Engineering Prioritisation Panel Meeting 8 and 9 June 2022 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
The majority of countries around the world maintain a disinfectant residual to control planktonic microbial contamination and/or regrowth within Drinking Water Distribution Systems (DWDS). Conversely, some European countries prohibit this practice because the residuals react to create disinfection by-products, which are regulated toxins with carcinogenic effects. Critically, the impact of disinfectant residuals on biofilms is unknown, including their role in creating a preferential environment for pathogens.

Biofilms grow on all surfaces; they are a matrix of microbial cells embedded in extracellular polymeric substances. With biofilms massively dominating the organic content of DWDS, there is a need for a definitive investigation of the processes and impacts underlying DWDS disinfection and biofilm interactions such that all the risks and benefits of disinfection residual strategies can be understood and balanced. This balance is essential for the continued supply of safe drinking water, but with minimal use of energy and chemicals.

The central provocative proposition is that disinfectant residuals promote a resistant biofilm that serves as a beneficial habitat for pathogens, allowing pathogens to proliferate and be sporadically mobilised into the water column where they then pose a risk to public health. This project will, for the first time, study and model the impact of disinfectant residual strategies on biofilms including pathogen sheltering, proliferation, and mobilisation to fill this important gap in DWDS knowledge.

The potential sources of pathogens in our DWDS are increasing due to the ageing nature of this infrastructure, for example, via ingress at leaks during depressurisation events. Volumes of ingress and hence direct exposure risks are small but could seed pathogens into biofilm, with potential for proliferation and subsequent release.

An integrated, iterative continuum of physical experiments and modelling is essential to deliver the ambition of the proposed research. We will make use of the latest developments in microbiology, internationally unique pilot scale experimental facilities, population biology and microbial risk assessment modelling to understand the interactions between the disinfection residuals, biofilms, pathogens and hydraulics of drinking water distribution systems. This research will combine globally renowned expertise in mathematical modelling, drinking water engineering, quantitative microbial risk assessment, and molecular microbial ecology to deliver this ambitious and transformative project.

If the central proposition is proven, then current practice in the UK and the majority of the developed world could be increasing health risks through the use of disinfectant residuals. The evidence generated from this research will be central to comprehensive risk assessment. A likely outcome is that by testing the hypothesis, we will prove under what conditions the selective pressures on biofilms are unacceptable, and in so doing understand and enable optimisation of disinfection residuals types and concentrations for different treated water characteristics. Although focused on the impacts of disinfectant residuals and pathogens, the research will also generate wider knowledge of biofilm behaviour, interactions and impacts between biofilms and water quality within drinking water distribution systems in general and relevant to other domains.

The impact of this research will be to deliver a step change in protecting public health whilst minimising chemical and energy use through well informed trade-offs between acute drinking water pathogen (currently unknown) and chronic disinfectant by-product (known and increasing) exposure. The ultimate beneficiaries will be the public, society and economy due to the intrinsic link between water quality and public health.

Key Findings
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Potential use in non-academic contexts
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Organisation Website: http://www.shef.ac.uk