Research spotlight on...John Sivey

By Megan Bradshaw on November 25, 2016

Chemistry professor investigates how drinking water could be made safer

Towson University Fisher College of Science and Mathematics Endowed Professor John Sivey wants to know if there’s a downside to disinfected drinking water.

In 1902 the United States introduced chlorine into the drinking water to protect the public from water-borne diseases. The formation of bonds between carbon and halogen atoms, or halogenation reactions, is integral to the antimicrobial properties of chlorine.

But in addition to inactivating bacteria and viruses, chlorine can also react with natural organic matter, like broken-down leaves, to form toxic disinfection by-products (DBPs) in drinking water. C Bromine, a chemical cousin of chlorine, can also form in chlorinated drinking water. As with chlorine, bromine is toxic to microbes and is capable of generating potentially harmful DBPs in drinking water. Those DBPs have been linked to bladder cancer and other diseases in humans.

Chlorinated DBPs have received the lion’s share of the research, so Sivey and his team have begun looking into the chemistry of the generally more toxic brominated DBPs. Because bromine can take on several forms in drinking water, Sivey’s team is seeking to identify which forms of bromine can influence bromination rates in disinfected water.

A more complete understanding of bromination chemistry can help improve treatment methods for drinking water, waste water and swimming pools; provide new insights into diseases linked to bromination of human biomolecules; and develop enhanced methods for producing bromine-containing specialty chemicals like pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

Sivey and undergraduate researchers Mark Bickley and Daniel Victor have published their findings in a peer-reviewed book chapter as well as an article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Matthew Broadwater and Garrett Taggert—also an undergraduate researcher in Sivey’s lab—have made presentations on the group’s bromination findings at the 251st American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting in San Diego, California, in 2016. 

In the future, Sivey and his team plan to use ultra-performance liquid chromatography with time-of-flight mass spectrometry (UPLC-TOF-MS) to identify new bromine-containing chemicals in chlorinated waters. The new UPLC-TOF-MS instrument was acquired from a National Science Foundation major research instrumentation grant under the direction of professors Ryan Sours, Shannon Stitzel, Kathryn Kautzman, Barry Margulies, and Sivey.