The University of Colorado Boulder has been selected for the first time in two decades to participate in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded program where it will spend a year developing a preliminary tool designed to help people around the world learn whether their drinking water is at risk of containing chemical toxins.
“The goal here is to have an impact certainly within the U.S., but also more broadly, thinking about low- and middle-income countries, where water testing is quite expensive,” said Matthew Bentley, an environmental engineering research affiliate at CU Boulder. “Even for people in the U.S., let alone people living in poverty, something like this would provide a free way for people to identify risks and address them.”
In June, the EPA announced the grant recipients for its People, Prosperity, and the Planet program. CU Boulder was one of 16 student teams awarded funding for research to address environmental and public health challenges. The Boulder campus received $25,000 to complete the year-long project.
Bentley said the EPA’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet program, is a student design project. At CU Boulder, the team completing the project will consist of one graduate student and about three undergraduate students. Bentley and Karl Linden, a CU Boulder environmental engineering professor, will oversee the project.
Over the next year, the team will create the alpha version of the tool or the pre-release version. It will be designed to either be a free phone app or a website. The software will provide people with a survey, and based on their responses, it will tell them what chemical toxins may be present in their drinking water, Bentley said.
“(The tool is) designed to raise a red flag (and say) ‘Because of these risk factors in your area like a nearby agricultural development or a chemical manufacturing plant or a power plant, you may have these chemicals in your drinking water and you should either do water quality testing or something to address the risk,’” he said.
Bentley said the tool will then walk users through the types of at-home treatments they can do that are easy to find and inexpensive.
The first phase of the project is expected to be completed in the fall of 2023. Bentley said he hopes the EPA awards the team an additional grant for a second year of work. If it is selected, CU Boulder’s team can receive up to $100,000 from the EPA to further implement the tool.
“That (second year) would allow us to get to the point of having an app or website rather than just a spreadsheet or really basic version of the tool,” Bentley said.
During the first year of the project, CU Boulder will use water quality data from India and the U.S. to build a tool specific to residents in those parts of the world. If CU Boulder is selected for an additional year of research, Bentley hopes to expand the tool so it can be used globally, he said.
“Ultimately, I think we would like to see it funded not only through the EPA, but through partners who see the benefits of identifying chemical risks in drinking water,” Bentley said. “That would allow us to manage it and update it. It is going to take active work to keep that database updated to make sure our risk profiles are accurate.”
Linden said he is excited to have been selected to take part in the project and to represent CU Boulder’s environmental engineering program.
“These funds will support involving a number of undergraduate students in this research experience over the coming academic year, and we look forward to traveling to Washington D.C. and presenting our findings to the EPA scientists and engineers,” he said.