Dr. Mark Servos

Man​aging the risk of new contaminants

Dr. Mark Servos and collegues observing water contamination

In Mark Servos’s biology department lab, waders and long-handled nets compete for space with a mass spectrometer. Servos, an eco-toxicologist and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Water Quality Protection, explains that he researches the impact of contaminants on aquatic life at levels “from gene expression all the way up to whole communities of fish.”

Scientific director of the Canadian Water Network, a national Network of Centres of Excellence, he also works within the Waterloo-based Centre for Control of Emerging Contaminants. His research program tackles the challenge of new compounds, including pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and nanomaterials, that flush into our waterways and, eventually, our drinking water.

Thousands of emerging contaminants (ECs) pass through waste treatment plants that were never designed to remove them. Servos emphasizes that levels of pharmaceuticals found in waterways such as the Grand River are so low that the risk to humans is minimal, although the long-term risk of this exposure is still unknown. The threat to the ecosystem is more acute, with fish species under stress, their reproductive processes affected.

You can’t eliminate risk, but you can manage and minimize it,” Servos says. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

By integrating chemistry and biology he is creating tools for isolating the likeliest culprits, and testing approaches towards minimizing their impacts in the environment.

Servos shares his findings in collaborations with engineers working on improvements to waste and drinking water treatment plants.

Because such modifications can cost millions of dollars, he says, “we want to give the decision-makers the best science we have, so they can make the best decisions on how to minimize risk as economically and effectively as possible.”