Northern Queensland Research on Contaminants

Northern Queensland Research on Contaminants
Date: 12-Mar-2021

A group of councils in northern Queensland has banded together with James Cook University to research how to manage contaminants of emerging concern that can get flushed down our sewers. The project is being spearheaded by Townsville Regional Council in partnership with James Cook University (JCU), along with Burdekin, Mackay, Isaac, Whitsunday and Cairns councils. The QWRAP-funded project has also received funding from Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowships, which is funding the principal researcher, Dr Elsa Antunes.

Anna Whelan from Townsville Water and Waste said the program was the first of its kind examining biosolids from sites across northern Queensland to better understand what contaminants might be in them and how they can be treated. 

“Lots of things ranging from personal care products, microplastics, PFAS and pharmaceuticals can get washed down the sewer from everyday activities including clothes washing and food preparation. They end up at our sewage treatment plants and can get concentrated in biosolids – the fertiliser-like soil that results when sewage has been safely treated,” she said.

Addressing contaminants in sewage is becoming an increasingly expensive process. Many chemicals that are being used more commonly around the home wind up in sewers and can be more difficult to treat than the nutrients and pathogens that are safely removed in modern sewage treatment plants. This new project will examine which chemicals are present in biosolids across northern Queensland and determine what sorts of treatment may be available to reduce them.

“It is a world-wide issue that has never been studied in tropical Australia” said Dr Elsa Antunes (JCU) the leader of the research project. 

“While we expect to find many issues in common with sewage treatment processes elsewhere in Australia and the around the world, we are also interested in specific circumstances of Queensland’s tropical, small and dispersed and primarily residential STP catchments. Treatment processes that are relevant here may have broader applicability across regional Australia”.

The project commenced in 2021 and will be providing regular progress reports. This is the first time that multiple councils in Regional Queensland have participated in a joint research program and it would not have been possible without QWRAP support and the seed funding provided by the Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water and the support of Advance Queensland (administered by the Department of State Development, Tourism and Innovation).

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