What are you drinking? A look at chemicals in the urban water cycle

Dr Leon Barron

This is a recording of a past event
6 February 2024


When you turn on the tap to get a glass of water, do you think about where that water has come from? Or rather, where it’s been and what treatment processes it has had to go through?

It’s true that chemicals can extend, improve and enrich our health, wellbeing and life experiences. But the rate at which new chemicals are being generated is resulting in widespread contamination of water. Arguably, the impacts of chemicals in our environment represent the third greatest planetary crisis behind climate change and biodiversity loss. And yet they are inextricably linked to both.

Currently, more than 56% of the world’s human population lives in cities. And daily use, release and exposure to chemicals in our environment is an emerging concern.

In this recording of an online talk, Dr Leon Barron outlines how chemicals move in our urban water cycle. From the wastewater we generate, to river pollution, to contamination of our drinking water and their occurrence in both humans and biota. Advances in measurement technology has underpinned much of this, especially the use of mass spectrometry, to fingerprint chemical sources.

Leon describes the role of wastewater in understanding exposure to chemicals, with respect to continuous release of treated effluents to our rivers, lakes and seas. He also talks about using the analysis of wastewater generated in cities to understand consumption and exposure patterns to every-day-use chemicals – like pharmaceuticals, personal care products, pesticides, lifestyle chemicals and many others.

He assesses potential solutions to this issue, to ensure that we balance the environmental impacts of chemicals and their immense benefit to society.

If we’re going to survive and thrive in the future, there is no doubt that we will need to look after our water supply.

dr leon barron

Dr Leon Barron

Dr Leon Barron is a Reader in Analytical and Environmental Sciences at Imperial College London within the School of Public Health. He has a particular interest in wastewater pollution, including combined sewer overflows and how we use chemical information in wastewater to understand community health. He is an analytical chemist by profession and focusses on developing new laboratory and in-field solutions to improve the understanding of the occurrence and risks of chemicals in our environment at scale.

Leon’s research group tackles a diverse range of issues surrounding this topic, including creating new testing strategies for thousands of chemicals in an array of environmental compartments and sample types, as well as environmental toxicology and risk assessment of chemicals, their metabolites and transformation products to better prioritise which ones we should focus on first.

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