Toxicology graduate discusses how toxic elements in drinking water can be reduced

Claire Boston | Multimedia Journalist

By Harry Rowe | Staff Writer

Dr. Vicki Liu, a graduate trainee of the Texas A&M toxicology department, spoke to Baylor students Wednesday about the dangers of disinfectant byproducts in the water system and how they can be minimized.

The talk was part of Baylor’s fall 2018 Environmental Science Seminar series, which features prominent researchers from all over the country working in fields related to or specifically involved with environmental science.

“[Dr. Liu’s] research in the field of drinking water contamination is incredibly important to chemistry and public health fields, has been published in high impact journals and is important research for Texas water resources,” said Dr. Christie Sayes, an associate professor of environmental science and toxicology at Baylor.

Liu’s area of expertise of study relating to contaminants in water is related to disinfectant by products, or DBPs. DBPs occur when naturally organic material in the water reacts with what has been used to clean the water of any bacteria and viruses it previously contained.

Liu said DBPs have been linked to causing things such as cancer in areas like the bladder, as well as pregnancy defects and miscarriages. Additionally, even though the government has decided to regulate some DBPs, but Liu said that this doesn’t make it any safer.

“Many studies have already demonstrated some unregulated DBPs are more toxic than the unregulated ones.” Liu said.

Liu said in the few decades since there have been studies, about 800 identified DBPs have been detected. However, a large amount of DBPs are still unknown to scientists. With the average person drinking an estimated 58 gallons of water per year, people can unknowingly be subjecting themselves to high levels of this dangerous by-product. In addition, Liu said it is important to consider any potential negative effects of mixing DBPs.

Liu said according to her studies, there is a way to of significantly reduce the amount of DBPs in water — boiling it. In China, where Liu is from, water is boiled from the tap. Coming to America, Liu said she felt a little out of place with this. During the experiments, chlorine was added to water samples to simulate the disinfectant process.

“Boiling is a very effective way to detoxify the DBPs in the water, and that means it can decrease our exposure to hologenetic DBPs through tap water ingestions,” Liu said.

Liu explained that because DBPs are constantly forming with the organic material, she wondered if the detoxifying process could be improved. If the chlorine residual can be decreased, the continuous formation of the DBPs would therefore be lowered.

After experimenting, she discovered that adding vitamin C decreased DBP production. If, however, a student is at a restaurant and is asked what they want to drink, Liu suggested asking for hot water with a lemon, like she grew up accustomed to in China.

“Lemon is very rich in vitamin C. If you put a lemon in the hot water, it will have the effect of reduction of DBPs and reduce the toxicity,” Liu said.