The Bilbao Bizkaia Water Consortium, the UPV/EHU, Gaiker and Cadagua start up the emerGEN project on resistant bacteria and emergent contaminants

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cadagua emerGEN bacteria contaminants water
  • The research, which will last for two years, has a budget of €488,062, financed by the Bilbao Bizkaia Water Consortium within the Collaboration Framework Agreement with the UPV/EHU to contribute to strengthening scientific and technological research and innovation in the field of water management. 
  • The goal is the detection and treatment of emerging contaminants, bacteria, and antibiotic-resistant genes, as well as the use of biological effect measurement tools (bioassays) in supply waters in Bizkaia. Passive sampling techniques will be combined with chemical and biological analyses. 

The Bilbao Bizkaia Water Consortium, along with the Department of Analytical Chemistry and the UPV/EHU’s Plentzia Marine Station (PiE), the Gaiker technology center, and specialized water treatment company Cadagua have launched the emerGEN project, an initiative to track Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs), bacteria, and antibiotic-resistant genes in Bizkaia’s supply waters to evaluate their potential presence, as well as the assessment of associated biological effects, both for the environment and for human health. 

The research project, which will last for two years – until September 2022, has a budget of €488,062, financed by the Bilbao Bizkaia Water Consortium within its Collaboration Framework Agreement with the UPV/EHU to contribute to strengthening education, training, research, development, and scientific and technological innovation in the field of water management and the Research Center of Excellence’s research plan in advanced water management technologies. 

Emerging contaminants that may be present in water include various pharmaceuticals, hormones, drugs, and personal care and hygiene products, as well as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which are widely used in products such as non-stick pans – known as Teflon – or waterproof clothing. Detecting these pollutants at trace levels in the environment has only recently been made possible through the development of new analytical technologies that are more sensitive. 

The project’s primary objective is improving knowledge about the current state of water quality used for supply and analyzing the effectiveness of water treatment centers (WTCs) regarding the possible presence of these substances and organisms. It is also proposed to determine the performance of a wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) regarding the elimination of emerging contaminants and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes, evaluating the impact of its effluent on the receiving medium. Finally, it will aim to determine the assessment of effects that the possible presence of CECs in water could entail for the environment and health. 

In each of the selected facilities – Sollano WTC (Zalla), Venta Alta WTC (Arrigorriaga), Gorozika WTC (Ondarroa), Oleta WTC (Lekeitio), the Etxebarri pilot plant, and the Markina WWTP – water sampling will be carried out before and after the process, and the presence of emerging contaminants will be identified and quantified using the high performance instruments available at the Plentzia Marine Station (Research Centre for Experimental Marine Biology and Biotechnology) to then move ahead to the assessment of environmental and health effects through the bioassays developed in Gaiker. 

These samples will be used to assess the biological effects from an “in vitro” and “in vivo” bioassay battery that will enable estimating the level of the associated potential risks. In addition, the application of analysis methods for the identification of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and antibiotic-resistant genes is also included in the raw and purified waters of the Markina wastewater treatment plant.

Advanced Treatments

In parallel to that, filtration, adsorption, and different advanced oxidation processes will be tested at the Bilbao Bizkaia Water Consortium’s pilot plant, which was built by Cadagua in Etxebarri’s pumping system, in order to optimize the water purification systems to improve and adapt the facilities to the future Drinking Water Directive that is predicted to incorporate new requirements with respect to these substances and compounds. 

Water is essential for life and is a valuable resource, and as such, it must be protected from pollution. It is the duty of all bodies that manage the water cycle to preserve the good condition of water and aquifer bodies. The widespread use of anthropogenic substances, such as pharmaceuticals, food additives, industrial products, and cosmetics, is having an increasing impact on the quality of resources available. 

Currently, the analysis of emerging contaminants, as well as measurement tools for biological effects (bioassays), are generally not included in routine monitoring programs at the European level, but they may be substances to be incorporated into future European regulation. Hence, the importance of launching this type of research to expand knowledge and stay a step ahead, with the aim of developing the necessary technologies and processes from a multidisciplinary perspective. 

There needs to be a balance between the benefits of some emerging pollutants for people’s quality of life and the potential health and environmental risks, and this will be a difficult social issue to resolve. As far as protecting water resources goes, efforts are needed from all parties with a hand in the water cycle. Manufacturers, users, governments, administrations, and water service operators must work in coordination to protect bodies of water from these substances and to minimize and prevent long-term negative impacts. 

That is where the emerGEN Project comes in, as an ambitious initiative in which the public and private spheres will work together, along with the participation of research teams from the University of the Basque Country (Universidad del País Vasco / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, UPV/EHU), the Gaiker technology center, and Cadagua, S.A. All of the information obtained will serve to increase knowledge in this sphere in order to update and adapt management of the integral cycle of urban water to the most demanding requirements, guaranteeing the highest quality of service provided by the Bilbao Bizkaia Water Consortium at all times.


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