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With what what you see is not always what you get

Virginia Polytechnic Institute And State University : 09 July, 2002  (Technical Article)
Many factors influence the quality of drinking water and a burgeoning new problem is raising concern. Metallic plumbing materials, capable of lasting for centuries, are occasionally corroding at a very fast rate. This deterioration is producing some extraordinary costs and environmental problems to consumers and to industry.
In an attempt to address the resulting health concerns, the National Science Foundation has awarded a group of interdisciplinary researchers at Virginia Tech a first-of-its-kind grant under a new Biocomplexity in the Environment program. This comprehensive project will aim to evaluate the costly impacts of corrosion on water quality, drinking water tastes and odors, and home plumbing.

'To my knowledge, no one has funded research to directly protect the consumer's interest in these important issues,' says Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. A nationally recognized expert on copper corrosion and member of the research team, Edwards has also received a Presidential Fellowship from the NSF for corrosion-based studies.

Edwards' Virginia Tech colleagues are: Andrea Dietrich, associate professor of CEE, G. V. Loganathan, associate professor of CEE, Susan Duncan, associate professor of food science and technology, Sharon Dwyer, health educator, and Daryl Bosch, professor of agriculture and applied economics.

Minimal progress has been made in understanding the chemical and biological factors contributing to corrosion of metal plumbing hardware. Diverse residential systems are particularly complicated to identify and restore. As a result, there is no rational basis for making decisions when problems are identified with potable infrastructures, Edwards says.

'At the forefront of concern for water utilities and consumers are the aesthetic qualities of water, such as taste, odor, and color. Aesthetic problems are the ones consumers notice and which create concern and fear about the potability of the water. Scientific and engineering issues associated with sensory perception and corrosion are complex and not easily unraveled. With this innovative NSF grant, our interdisciplinary team will advance the understanding of both water quality and consumer perception,' says Dietrich, an expert who studies the causes of tastes and odors in drinking water.

The American Water Works Association ( ) estimates that it will cost U.S. water utilities $325 billion during the next 20 years to replace losses due to corrosion and the need to upgrade water distribution systems. Nationally, corrosion of metals is believed to consume four percent of the gross domestic product.

Serious health and aesthetic problems can occur from microbial growth or contaminant leaching from metallic, plastic, and concrete plumbing material. The environmental impacts from the deteriorated plumbing include holes in pipes formed through corrosion, which allow the influx of contaminants into drinking water systems, the loss of the water resource itself, and resultant property damage.

Researchers will focus on the economic, consumer, and biochemical dimensions of potable water infrastructure corrosion. The findings will especially be of interest to the Environmental Protection Agency, manufacturers of plumbing materials, and the potable water industry.

The NSF grant is part of its Biocomplexity in the Environment program housed in the agency's Materials Uses: Science, Engineering and Society Program. Phase I is a planning grant for $110,000. This year only planning grants were awarded but it is anticipated that future grants for related research will be for several million dollars. VT's diverse cross-disciplinary team includes six different national agencies including: the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Global Health Affairs in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the American Water Works Association and its Research Foundation, and the Virginia Water Resource Research Institute which is part of the Department of the Interior.

Researchers from Chile and Germany and two other academic institutions will also be involved: Montana State University and the University at the Instituto de Nutricion y Tecnologia de los Alimentos in Chile. Participating researchers and students represent six disciplines: civil and environmental engineering, economics, food and sensory science, public health, regulatory affairs, water treatment and supply.
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