Environmental Engineering Professor Targets Lead in Drinking Water

Professor and student talking in lab
Environmental Engineering Asst. Prof. Onur Apul with undergraduate student Ritchie LaFaille. Apul and his faculty co-researchers in the Chemistry and Plastics Engineering Departments have developed a process for capturing lead from water distribution systems.

By Geoffrey Douglas

Lead – which, above certain levels, is a toxic material – is known to have contaminated the Massachusetts water distribution network for decades. And there is far too much of it in the water our public school students are drinking. Of the state’s public high schools, nearly a third – 51 of the 162 schools tested – include plumbing fixtures with lead levels above the state’s limit, according to a survey last year by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). In at least a few schools, lead levels have exceeded those detected in Flint, Mich., during its ongoing water crisis. 

And it isn’t just the schools. Half of the water pipes in the state are made of lead, according to a recent study by MassDEP. It’s a problem as old as the lead itself; left uncorrected, says the state agency, it can lead to illnesses “ranging from stomach distress to brain damage.” At present, the options for removing lead from drinking water are limited. 

Environmental Engineering Asst. Prof. Onur Apul, in collaboration with Asst. Profs. James Reuther of the Chemistry Department and Jay Hoon Park of the Plastics Engineering Department, believes there is a solution. 

Working with Ph.D. student researcher Arsalan Khalid (who graduated in May 2019) and aided by a three-month, $15,000 seed grant from the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center, Apul has developed a process that, through the electrospinning of hybrid polymers, yields a fine fiber containing pulverized activated carbon that is capable of capturing lead from water distribution systems. 

Unlike water filtration products currently on the market such as Brita or ZeroWater, this process, known as adsorption, can be deployed to capture and remove lead at the water source – the service line – as well as at its “point of use,” such as the sink, fountain or water tap. 

But the bigger challenge lies ahead. “We’ve tested the process; we know it works,” Apul says. The goal now is to bring the technology to market. To accomplish this, a prototype of the product containing the electrospun fiber must first be completed. 

The product, to be called Lead-Ex, would consist of a pipeshaped reactor filled with lead-specific adsorbent media that does not interfere with water flow, explains Apul. “It would be cost-effective, simple to install and replace and customizable to the needs of the user in terms of building type, water use and expected lifetime of the filter,” he says. “An apartment renter, for example, might need to purchase six inches of Lead-Ex to ensure a year of lead-free water, while a high school building might need as much as ten feet for the same time period.” 

He adds, “It would be totally custom-fitted and serviced the same way, just like if you were calling a plumber for a job.” 

Apul hopes to have the prototype completed by next summer. In the meantime, he and his team are partnering with UMass Lowell’s Office of Technology Commercialization to secure funding that would take them to the next level. 

“There are lead pipes all throughout the eastern United States – though not as many as in the west, where the pipes are usually newer,” he says. “But the U.S. has a $10 billion-a-year water treatment market, while the global industry totals more than $24 billion. And they’re still growing. The commercial potential is enormous.”