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Biochemistry undergrads decide to test the waters

For environmental chemistry professor Susan Richardson, it’s a question she hears a lot: Is bottled water safer to drink than tap water? To help her investigate, she enlisted honors biochemistry students Gretchen Bollar and Anthony Kocur. The pair spent a year and a half analyzing 10 brands of bottled water, tap water and their control “ultrapure” water.
Bollar and Kokur’s study was the first comprehensive look at the chemicals present in bottled water. While it was suspected that bottled water might have lower levels of disinfection byproducts (DBPs) and other chemicals than tap water, no one had ever investigated this before.
Bollar and Kokur quantified 70 regulated and unregulated DBPs, quantified total organic chlorine, bromine and iodine, and conducted non-target analysis using mass spectrometry to identify any other chemicals in their test waters.
What did the young scientists find? Basically, that bottled water has fewer DBPs than tap water. That’s a good thing, because many DBPs have been identified as “highly toxic,” Richardson says.
Still, Richardson is not suggesting that everyone start drinking bottled water.
“It’s important to note that bottled water is not regulated in the same way that our tap water is, and our drinking water treatment plants do a great job of killing the harmful bacteria to make it safe to drink,” she says. “At the same time, my group is investigating the use of granular activated carbon to remove DBP precursors and reduce DBP formation in our tap water. This would be like having a giant Brita filter at the drinking water treatment plant. So far, the results are promising. The goal of our research is to make good drinking water safer.”
The researchers stress that their work wasn’t designed to test which brand of bottled water is the safest, best or cleanest — only which waters have fewer DBPs. The results were consistent across the name brands and the store brands of bottled water they tested.
“We really didn’t see anything that made a single brand stand out dramatically from the others,” Bollar says.
The results of their research, funded by Magellan, SURF, and Honors Thesis grants, will be submitted to a scientific journal. Bollar and Kocur are joint first authors; thesis director Richardson and her graduate students Amy Cuthbertson, Josh Allen and Hannah Liberatore, who assisted and helped oversee the project, are coauthors.
Their groundbreaking research also earned the pair the 2019 William A. Mould Outstanding Senior Thesis Award. And is goes without saying that the same opportunity exists for all undergraduates in the College of Arts and Sciences. Students can talk to their advisor or visit the Student Excellence Collaborative to explore research opportunities.
“This project really proved to me that if I set my mind to a task, I’m going to see it through,” Bollar says. “There were times when I was frustrated or busy and didn’t want to work anymore, but I kept going because I knew the end result would be worth it.”
This article is adapted from “To drink or not to drink (tap or bottled water)” by Aida Rogers.

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