Posts Tagged: Research

CivMin’s Prof. Goodfellow on team awarded massive CIHR grant

Physiological earthquakes: Predicting cardiac events combining seismic experience with AI in the hospital

 

Photo composite of ECG readout over image from pediatric ICU at SickKids. (Courtesy Laussen Labs)

It is rare for a mineral engineering professor to receive funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), as it usually falls to biomedical engineering research and others directly involved with health care.

Professor Sebastian Goodfellow, from the Lassonde Mineral Engineering Program, with some CivMin graduate students and a team of predominantly medical doctors at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), affiliated with the University of Toronto, have achieved exactly this. They’ve been awarded a $657,900 grant from CIHR to fund their research into deploying artificial intelligence (AI) in the intensive care unit (ICU) at SickKids to detect and diagnose heart arrhythmias.

Up to 29 per cent of critically ill children experience arrhythmias that cause deterioration and even death. These arrhythmic complications affect roughly 700 critically ill children at SickKids each year. Preventing these complications requires timely detection and accurate heart rhythm diagnosis, which is currently done by continuous clinician surveillance of single-lead electrocardiograms (ECG) displayed on patient monitors. Differing clinician expertise and experience in this task lead to errors and delays in detection and diagnosis associated with preventable patient harm.

Prof. Goodfellow, along with Dr. Mjaye Mazwi and the team at Laussen Labs, a multidisciplinary research group at SickKids, are working to develop and deploy a highly accurate AI capable of expert classification heart rhythm to prototype what they believe will be a generalizable solution to addressing the translation gap in AI for health care.

We met (virtually) with Prof. Goodfellow to talk about the plans for deploying this AI system and how it’s not just as simple as training a model.


Prof. Sebastian Goodfellow (Courtesy Prof. Goodfellow)

You were recently told you have been awarded funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
Yes, along with co-PI [principal investigator] Mjaye Mazwi and the team at Laussen Labs, we have applied many times – perhaps this is the fourth or fifth time – and we’ve been close. In 2020 we were ranked 7th, but funding went to the top six. Again, in 2021 we were ranked 11th, when funding went to the top 10. This time we were successful and it’s very gratifying.

Usually someone in the medical field would receive this kind of funding. It’s unusual for the CIHR to award something engineering related, right?
Well, yes, it is strange. Always raises a few eyebrows. What does mineral engineering have to do with health care? On the surface, not much.

I joined Laussen Labs in 2017 to bring my signal-processing expertise to the group. My PhD research, which I conducted in our Department, focused on applied seismology, which is the study of seismic waves generated by engineering processes such as mining. At the time, Laussen Labs had just started acquiring physiologic waveform data, such as ECGs, which are the electrical signal of the heart. The analysis and modelling of high-frequency time series data require a skillset called digital signal processing. When analyzing earthquake seismograms during my PhD, and afterwards in the private sector, I acquired this skill set, which is how I first got into the health-care field.

However, these multidisciplinary teams are more common than you may think and the reason is the important problems of today and tomorrow spill across borders, cultural divides and fields of knowledge. For example, Laussen Labs developed a bespoke time-series database for the storage of physiologic waveform data at SickKids. The lead database architect was a hydrologist by training whose previous experience was developing a database for the storage of drone photography for a flood plane mapping application. There are, of course, many doctors in Laussen Labs but also computer scientists, a seismologist, a cognitive psychologist and yes, a hydrologist.

Over time, the gap between AI in mineral engineering and AI in health care has become smaller and smaller for me. Beyond publishing proof-of-concept studies in academic journals, deploying AI models in the real world is very hard and the challenges span mineral engineering, health care, and beyond.

The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

What is it you’ve proposed? And what will you do to fulfill this grant?
We are building and deploying a model that detects and diagnoses common pediatric heart arrhythmias using continuous ECG data, which is generally a task staff physicians in the ICU can do very well. The challenge is there are only two staff physicians on duty at any given time to service 42 ICU beds, and detecting and diagnosing heart arrhythmias is just a small part of their job. As a result, these arrhythmias often go undiagnosed for a period and the longer the delay, the worse the outcome for the patient. The idea is to use our expert clinicians to train an AI, which can match their performance and monitor all ICU beds 24 hours a days, seven days a week, looking for arrhythmias.

The model is actually quite vanilla. AI experts from the Vector Institute would be rather underwhelmed – it’s just a WaveNet model performing multiclass classification. Big deal, right? But, employing the golden rule of engineering, Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS), was deliberate. If you search the keywords AI/ Machine Learning/ Deep Learning + Health care in Google Scholar, you’ll find hundreds of thousands of academic papers and the growth is exponential. It’s a hot topic to say the least. However, if you dig a little deeper to see how many of those AI models actually made it to clinical deployment, it’s less than 0.1 per cent. We call this the “translation gap” and we made the decision to keep our model simple, so we could focus on translation.

The translation gap is a result of multiple factors. These include difficulties creating computational infrastructure that can reliably ingest data for real-time classification, the requirement of a production-grade Machine Learning Operations [MLOps] platform for serving, monitoring, and re-training AI models, regulatory challenges integrating AI models into clinical domains, and concerns about responsible validation and bias, sometimes described as “algorithmic fairness”. The team that can close this gap must include a wide range of expertise including bio-ethics, MLOps, law, cloud, software development, human factors, cognitive psychology, digital signal processing and machine learning.

VIDEO: This animation shows an ECG signal transitioning from a normal rhythm to an arrhythmia. In the top right corner is the model score for a particular pediatric arrhythmia called Junctional Ectopic Tachycardia (JET). When the signal transitions, you can see the model score increase.

 

You have a background in AI, correct?
Before joining U of T, I was the AI Lead at a startup in the mining industry called KORE Geosystems. We developed an AI product that automated various parts of geotechnical and geological core logging workflows. For example, rock type classification and fracture counting. In this role I had to deploy AI models that geoscientists relied on to do their work. This is where I learned just how hard deploying AI models in the real world is. I was able to bring this experience to Laussen Labs where they were running up against similar challenges.

When you’re building products, you’re forced to start from the business requirements and work backwards to the technical solution. Because products are built for users, it’s no surprise why this is the preferred approach. In research, it’s more common to start from a dataset, build a model, publish a paper, and then start thinking about the application, which is no wonder less than 0.1 per cent of AI studies make it to deployment. The product development mindset I developed in the private sector has been invaluable in successfully translating AI models into complex clinical environments.

I’ve sometimes heard people say they don’t trust AI. Is this going to be a challenge?
Trust is always a challenge when introducing any new technology into an established workflow, and AI is no exception. In health care and mining, AI adoption has been seriously impeded because of early and very public projects that started with building a model and only involved the end user, such as a doctor or a geologist, at the very end if at all. This model-centric approach gets people’s walls up quickly and we’re still trying to overcome it even to this day. Therefore, it is imperative to think about your AI model as a product from the very start, which will involve those end users in documenting requirements and ultimately build trust.

There is also a sci-fi perception of AI perhaps resembling Skynet from the Terminator movies. Whenever talking about AI with doctors or geologists, I always try to use the most boring descriptions I can think of. My favourite at the moment comes from the Head of Decision Intelligence at Google, Cassie Cozirkov, who describes Machine Learning, which is a subdomain of AI, as a “thing labeller”. The “thing” could be a photo of an intersection and the “label” could be the number of pedestrians in the intersection. For our arrhythmia model, the “thing” is a five-second segment of ECG data and the “label” is whether an arrhythmia is present. What’s all the hype about, right?

Lastly, how we present the performance of a model to the end user is important and, in my opinion, is the best way to promote trust. We need to use metrics that map to clinical key performance indicators, and we need to present those metrics in a transparent manner over long periods. Most people have no clue how a plane achieves flight or how a jet engine works but they feel safe flying. The reason is there is a one in 20 million chance of dying in a commercial airline plane crash. So, an arrhythmia model that is consistently performing at the level of a board-certified cardiologist will build trust.

By Phill Snel

 

Team members:
Mazwi, Mjaye, SickKids (co-PI)
Goodfellow, Sebastian (co-PI)
Assadi, Azadeh, SickKids
Bulic, Anica, SickKids
Ehrmann, Daniel, SickKids
Eytan, Danny, SickKids
Goldenberg, Anna, SickKids
Goodwin, Andrew, SickKids
Greer, Robert, SickKids
McCradden, Melissa, SickKids
Gallant, Sara, SickKids
Gnatenko, Vladislav (CivMin, MASc candidate)
Shubin, Dmitrii (CivE MASc 2T1)

 

 

 


CivMin’s Prof. Siegel part of Round 1 GESeed Funded Project

Prof. Jeffrey Siegel (Photo by Daria Perevezentsev)

 

In January 2022, the Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN) inaugurated the Global Engineering Seed (GESeed), a fund which aims to support community-engaged, socially-impactful engineering research. Through Round 1 of this fund, the Centre has provided funding to six multidisciplinary projects which engage nine faculty across the University and eight external collaborators. CivMin’s Prof. Jeffrey Siegel is part of a project team receiving Round 1 funding.


Cleaner Air for an Indigenous Community Heavily Impacted by Energy Development

Principal Investigator: Professor Jeff Brook
Co-Investigators: Greg Evans, Arthur Chan, Jeffrey Siegel
External Partners: Fort McKay First Nation Sustainability Department, AUG Signals Ltd.

Fort McKay, AB, is a First Nation and Metis community surrounded by oil sands development. Air quality is a major concern for all stakeholders. Despite improvements for some pollutants, the community suffers from odours and dust accumulation. These are the ‘visible’ tip of the iceberg in regards to environmental health concerns. Ongoing bitumen extraction, including nearby growth of surface mining, means prospects for a return to the air quality they once knew are small. Scientific evidence is needed to support community driven initiatives towards continual improvement. Specifically, the community is planning to retrofit all homes and buildings with air cleaning technologies. However, there are critical questions regarding the efficacy of this approach in reducing exposures and how it can be designed to have the greatest benefit. All stakeholders recognize that air cleaning is not the ideal solution, but a necessary alternative.

This project will help the community evaluate the effectiveness through measurements in the outdoor and indoor air before, during and after pilot installations. The goal is to ensure the investments are effective and that optimal operation parameters of the systems are determined early on as the effort is scaled-up. Moreover, climate change related forest fires will increasingly put many rural/remote first nations communities at risk of poor air quality, and indoor air cleaning is increasingly being recognized as a necessary adaptation measure. Thus, the lessons learned in Fort McKay will have benefits across many communities in Canada.

See all the other Round 1 Funded Projects
and read the feature story by Engineering News


Four CivMin grad students garner CGEN scholarships

CivMin graduate students, clockwise from top left: Gabrielle Migliato Marega, Ahmed-Effat Mosa, Karlye Wong and Keagan Hudson Rankin.

Four CivMin graduate students have been awarded scholarships from the Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN). The feat is impressive, as half of the eight scholarships awarded have been granted to MASc and PhD candidates within the Department. A total pool of 40 applicants, representing more than a doubling of applicants since 2018, were reviewed.

Our winners include:

  • Gabrielle Migliato Marega (CivE PhD candidate under the supervision of Prof. David Meyer) has been awarded the Paul Cadario Doctoral Fellowship in Global Engineering,
  • Ahmed-Effat Mosa (CivE PhD candidate under the supervision of Prof. Sarah Haines) has been awarded the Paul Cadario Doctoral Fellowship in Global Engineering
  • Keagan Hudson Rankin (CivE MASc candidate under the supervision of Prof. Shoshanna Saxe) has been awarded the C.W. Bowman Graduate Scholarship in Energy Research
  • Karlye Wong (CivE PhD candidate under the supervision of Prof. Ron Hofmann) has been awarded the Paul Cadario Doctoral Fellowship in Global Engineering

“It’s been incredible seeing the number of scholarship applicants double every few years,” says Ahmed Mahmoud, Program Manager at CGEN. “Those awards used to be low-hanging fruit for certain students working in this Global Development domain, but they have since become extremely competitive. I believe this reflects a growing appetite in CivMin – and across Engineering – to engage in projects that prioritize participatory research, social impact, and sustainable development. CGEN will do all it can to ensure those projects continue being successful,”


We asked our CivMin award winners to provide a few paragraphs about themselves and their work.

 

Gabrielle Migliato Marega
CivE PhD candidate under the supervision of Prof. David Meyer has been awarded the Paul Cadario Doctoral Fellowship in Global Engineering

Gabrielle Migliato Marega (CivE PhD candidate)

I am a second-year PhD candidate working under the supervision of Prof. David Meyer at the Centre for Global Engineering. I was born and raised in Brazil, where I did an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering and an MSc in Hydraulics and Sanitation. Growing up in a developing country, I witnessed first-hand how a lack of basic services can have devastating impacts on people’s lives. I was lucky enough to live in an area of a major city where the water and sanitary infrastructure is similar to that which we have here in Toronto. However, peri-urban areas and low-income neighbourhoods are only a 20-minute drive away from my family’s home. The inhabitants of these areas are exposed to a completely different reality, one that meant they did not have access to water or sewage infrastructure for most of the last decade.

Fortunately, my city’s coverage was expanded in recent years and today almost 100 per cent of the city is covered with at least basic services. However, this is not the reality in most cities in developing countries. Access to safe sanitation is a fundamental human right, yet two billion people (more than 25 per cent of the world’s population!) still lack access to basic sanitation, imposing significant health, economic and social burdens on the most vulnerable populations worldwide.

In my research, I focus on studying how we can expand sanitary sewers in developing countries. Sanitation infrastructure is expected to operate for decades, yet rapid urbanization and climate change render the future increasingly uncertain. These uncertainties are accentuated in low- and middle-income countries, most of which experience unpredictable urbanization and are vulnerable to climate change effects. My goal is to model these uncertainties, quantify the uncertainty-induced risks to sanitation infrastructure and assess the degree to which sewer infrastructure design guidelines mitigate these uncertainties and risks. With this work, we aim to spur innovative approaches to manage uncertainty in the sanitation industry, creating a more resilient and sustainable urban infrastructure for all.


 

Ahmed-Effat Mosa
CivE PhD candidate under the supervision of Prof. Sarah Haines has been awarded the Paul Cadario Doctoral Fellowship in Global Engineering

Ahmed-Effat Mosa (CivE PhD candidate)

Effat is an incoming PhD candidate in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. He holds a Bachelor in Architectural Engineering and an MSc in Sustainable Design of Built Environments with distinction and completed multiple continuing studies in Computational thinking and Data Analytics at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Business School. He has broad industry experience implementing sustainable urban and building designs between AEC and tech firms. Effat developed a niche as a High-Performance Built Environment Activist; Health Equity, Impact, and Urban Innovation are his main research interests.

Through his PhD proposal, Effat aims to further expand his multidisciplinary skills in building science and indoor air quality and use building performance optimization and community engagement tools to improve housing quality in Indigenous First Nation communities in Canada. His proposed research will provide essential information and community support to rethink indoor air quality (IAQ) and energy usage in these communities. This work is critical as about a quarter (24 per cent) of First Nations people in Canada live in substandard housing that requires significant repair. These issues in housing quality may have substantial implications for health and well-being as poor housing quality is associated with increased hospital visits in children and the prevalence of upper respiratory diseases. It is the motivation to make the built environment inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable in general and to ensure health equity, quality of life, and equal access to technology and innovation in all communities that drives his work.

This proposal aligns with CGEN’s efforts to support outstanding research projects focusing on participatory engagement with Indigenous communities in Canada. Improving housing quality in impacted communities is a primary building block for healthy communities and a sustainable built environment and ties directly to multiple United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is the global shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet.


 

Keagan Hudson Rankin
CivE MASc candidate under the supervision of Prof. Shoshanna Saxe has been awarded the C.W. Bowman Graduate Scholarship in Energy Research

Keagan Hudson Rankin (CivE MASc candidate)

Keagan’s research investigates the relationship between infrastructure needs and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from materials. Material production and use makes up a quarter of global GHG emissions and must be reduced to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C. At the same time, increasing population and global development is driving massive demand for construction materials in infrastructure, especially in developing countries. These countries require new strategies to facilitate equitable development without compromising sustainability goals. 

To address this need, Keagan is researching how material efficiency strategies, like low-carbon materials, urban mining, and changes in building form, could be applied to residential construction. Currently, he is looking at a residential form called missing middle that has the potential to combine the material efficacy of lightweight, low-rise construction with the per-person efficiencies of multi-unit buildings. This residential form presents an opportunity for developing, and developed countries alike, to quickly build affordable shelter and raise standards of living without compromising global sustainability. Material efficiency strategies, when deployed with consideration for social and economic impacts, will allow growing cities to curb their emissions while supporting effective infrastructure operation and residents’ quality of life. 

Keagan is a first-year MASc candidate with the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering. He completed his undergraduate degree in engineering at University of New Brunswick before coming to Toronto for his graduate studies. Keagan is passionate about sustainable theory and mathematics, and he hopes to use this passion to help solve problems emerging from the interaction between humans and natural systems.


 

Karlye Wong
CivE PhD candidate under the supervision of Prof. Ron Hofmann has been awarded the Paul Cadario Doctoral Fellowship in Global Engineering

Karlye Wong (CivE PhD candidate)

Following an MASc in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto, Karlye spent five years working in NGOs and as an independent consultant managing and designing WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) projects across sub-Saharan Africa. While based overseas in Tanzania, Karlye developed environmental risk and climate resiliency management systems in humanitarian settings and managed the implementation of WASH projects across 10 countries. Karlye believes UN SDG goal 6 (SDG 6) is a cornerstone to global development as clean, accessible, reliable water in a community can be transformative; it unlocks the burden of carrying water, enhances community health, improves food security, and can facilitate economic growth, particularly in rural and off-grid contexts. However, more sustainable solutions are needed as water stresses are exacerbating due to the pressures of climate change, population growth, urbanization, and most recently, global pandemics.

Karlye was compelled to return to academia to dig deep into the technical, economic, and social challenges that impact SDG 6 through sustainable access to clean water and other interconnected SDGs. Her proposed research will investigate the sustainable access to clean water through solar-powered UV-LED treatment and rainwater harvesting in off-grid communities in Mexico and Tanzania. This project aims to study how rainwater harvesting (RWH) and solar-powered UV-LED treatment can be implemented in off-grid households, schools, and health care facilities (HCFs) to improve water quality where centralized water services are unavailable. UV-LED treatment and RWH can offer a sustainable, decentralized, and low-cost treatment option to address water quality, hygiene, and risk of transmission, while building resilience to climate change and emerging health issues, like antimicrobial resistance and COVID-19. Karlye’s work will explore UV-LED at health care facilities in Tanzania, which serve a population of about 130,000, as well as households and schools in Mexico.

Ultimately, her intention is to optimize the Paul Cadario Fellowship to ensure the lessons gleaned from her research will be scalable and shared globally, including marginalized, off-grid and rural communities lacking access to clean water in Canada. Karlye looks forward to work with CGEN to collaborate with locally-based and international partners to integrate sustainability, grow strong research partnerships, facilitate international knowledge transfer, and build potential pathways for other U of T students to continue building the UN SDGs into its research.

 


ABOUT

CGEN is a multidisciplinary research institute at the University of Toronto which is mobilizing engineering researchers and students to solve the world’s most intractable problems. Its mandate is two-fold:

  1. To catalyze cutting-edge engineering research, and produce evidence-based solutions to the Grand Challenges facing the world’s most vulnerable populations. To date, CGEN has undertaken research projects which tackle food insecurity, water access, sanitation, energy poverty, safe housing, education, and community capacity-building both in low-income countries and in indigenous communities here in Canada
  2. To train the next generation of engineers to adapt to growing trends in globalization and to become effective global citizens

CGEN accomplishes these goals through a range of programs, which include: Research Projects, Courses, Capstone Projects, and Scholarships and Fellowships.


Paul Cadario Doctoral Fellowship in Global Engineering
This award was created through generous donations by Dr. Paul Cadario and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. It is awarded to PhD students affiliated with the Centre for Global Engineering (as certified by the Director of the Centre or a designate) whose research has potential impact in the developing world.

Metcalfe Family Graduate Fellowship
This award was created through generous donations by Dr. Murray Metcalfe and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. It will be awarded to current and incoming MASc and PhD students whose research has potential impact in the developing world. Applicants should highlight how their research has the potential to address a critical global challenge, in an area such as (but not limited to) energy poverty and climate change, building sustainable cities and infrastructure, data engineering for development, or engineering education for the 21st century.

The C.W. Bowman Graduate Scholarship in Energy Research 
This award was created through generous donations by Dr. Clement W., Mrs. Marjorie Bowman, and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. It is awarded to current and incoming MASc and PhD students who are pursuing studies or engaged in research relating to either Canada’s energy systems with a focus on the environment, or global energy systems relating to the environment and to sustainability issues.

 


U of T Engineering researchers use machine learning to enhance environmental monitoring of microplastics

Graduate research assistant Weiwu Chen (CivMin) counts microplastics using a microscope in the lab of Professor Elodie Passeport (CivMin, ChemE). (Photo: Shuyao Tan)

 

Microplastics exist all around us — in the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe. But before researchers can understand the real impact of these particles, they need faster and more effective ways to quantify what is there.  

Two recent U of T Engineering studies have proposed new methods that use machine learning to make the process of counting and classifying microplastics easier, faster and more affordable.  

Prof. Elodie Passeport

“It’s really time consuming to analyze a water sample for microplastics,” says Professor Elodie Passeport (CivMin, ChemE).

“It can take up to 40 hours to fully analyze a sample the size of a mason jar — and that specimen is from one point in time. It becomes especially difficult when you want to make comparisons over time or observe samples from different bodies of water.” 

This past March, the United Nations Environment Programme endorsed a historic resolution to end plastic pollution, which it called “a catastrophe in the making,” due to the threat the production and pollution poses to human health, marine and costal species, and global ecosystems. 

The synthetic material can take hundreds to thousands of years to biodegrade. But it is not just visible plastic refuse that is an issue: over time plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. Those pieces that are less than five millimetres in size but greater than 0.1 micrometres are defined as microplastics.   

Researchers who study the effects of microplastics are still trying to understand how these tiny pieces could affect human and environmental health in ways that are different from the bulk material. 

A stormwater sample, left, is juxtaposed with the plastic particles manually picked out of the sample, right. (Photo: Kelsey Smyth)

Though past studies have demonstrated the presence of microplastics in various environments, the standards for how to quantify their levels — and critically, how to compare different samples over time and space — are still emerging. Passeport worked with PhD student Shuyao Tan (ChemE) and Professor Joshua Taylor (ECE) to address the challenge of analysis.  

“We asked ourselves whether there could be a crude measurement that could predict the concentration of microplastics,” says Passeport. 

“In collaboration with Professor Taylor, who has expertise in machine learning and optimization, we established a prediction model that employs a trained algorithm that can estimate microplastic counts from aggregate mass measurements.”  

 “Our method has guaranteed error tracking properties with similar results to manual counting, but it’s less costly and faster, allowing for the analysis of multiple samples from multiple points to estimate microplastic pollution.”  

The team’s investigation, published earlier this year in ACS ES&T Water, has the advantage of allowing researchers to manually process only a fraction of their collected samples and predict the quantity of the rest using an algorithm, without introducing any more error or variance.  

“Researchers working on microplastic analysis need to know how many plastic particles there are, the kinds of particles, the polymers and shapes,” says Tan. 

With this information, they can then study the effects of microplastic pollution on living organisms — as well as where this pollution is coming from, so they can deal with it at the source.” 

Classical quantification methods using visible light microscopy require the use of tweezers to count samples one-by-one under an optical microscope — a labour-intensive endeavour that is prone to human error. 

In an investigation published in Science of The Total Environment, PhD candidate Bin Shi (MSE), who is supervised by Professor Jane Howe (MSE, ChemE), employed deep learning models for the automatic quantification and classification of microplastics. 

Shi used scanning electron microscopes to segment images of microplastics and classify their shapes. When compared to visual screening methods, this approach provided a greater depth of field and finer surface detail that can prevent false identification of small and transparent plastic particles.  

“Deep learning allows our approach to speed up the quantification of microplastics, especially since we had to remove other materials that could create false identifications, such as minerals, substrate, organic matter and organisms,” says Shi.   

“We were able to develop accurate algorithms that can effectively quantify and classify the objects in such complex environments.” 

It is this diversity in the chemical composition and shapes of microplastics that can create difficulties for many researchers, especially since there is no standardized method to quantify microplastics.  

Shi collected microplastic samples in various shapes and chemical compositions — such as beads, films, fibres, foams and fragments — from sources including face wash, plastic bottles, foam cups, washing and drying machines, and medical masks. He then processed images of the individual samples using the scanning electron microscope to create a library of hundreds of images. 

This project is the first labelled open-source dataset for microplastics image segmentation, which allows researchers from all over the world to benefit from this new method and develop their own algorithms specific to their research interests.   

This method also has the potential to go down to the scale of nanoplastics, which are particles smaller than 0.1 micrometres,” says Shi.  

A scanning electron microscope (SEM) plate holding microplastic samples, left, and the SEM used for the project, right. (Photo: Bin Shi)

“If we can continue to expand our library of images to include more microplastic samples from different environments with varied shapes and morphologies, we can monitor and analyze microplastic pollution much more effectively.” 

For now, the goal of Passeport and Tan’s predictive model is to be a diagnostic tool that can help researchers identify areas where they should concentrate their analytical efforts with more in-depth technologies. 

The team also hopes this method can empower citizen scientists to monitor microplastic pollution in their own environments.  

“Individuals can collect samples, filter and dry them to get the weight and then use a trained algorithm to predict the amount of microplastics,” says Passeport. 

“As we continue our work, we want to introduce some automatic training sample selection methods that will allow individuals to just click a button and automatically select the training sample,” adds Tan. 

We want to make our method easy so that they can be used by anyone, without them needing any knowledge of machine learning and mathematics.”  

 

By Safa Jinje

This story originally published by Engineering News


Scott Butler and Good Roads ready to team up with U of T for a better Ontario

The Civil Engineering Industry Advisory Board (IAB) is an integral link in supporting and strengthening the Department’s relationships with key industries, fostering increased collaborative research, enhancing student experiential learning opportunities and increasing industry engagement. 

Our IAB is comprised of a group of experienced industry professionals who are all committed to the advancement of our students, faculty and the Department. 

We recently caught up with IAB member Scott Butler who is the Executive Director of Good Roads. 

What do you specialize in?  

As an organization, Good Roads is responsible for municipal transportation and infrastructure needs. I think my specialty as a non-engineer is translating the technical concerns of engineers into the consideration of councils and senior management with local governments.  

What career project are you most proud of?  

I was responsible for getting the new Municipal Asset Management Planning Regulation brought into effect. This was the culmination of a five-year advocacy campaign with various ministries at Queen’s Park. I think it has fundamentally changed the approach to infrastructure stewardship in Ontario and really puts us on a path to becoming world leaders in terms of maintaining and financing infrastructure assets.  

Why did you want to join the IAB?  

I felt it was an opportunity to understand and get some exposure to private sector considerations. I think municipalities tend to look at things almost from a service provision point of view and the perspective of private actors can be lost in that conversation where you’re not able to find common ground. I think it’s really important, and for us, our membership of Good Roads is comprised of 440 of the 444 municipalities, plus another 30 First Nations in Ontario, and being able to understand and operate in a space where those private sector interests, those academic interests and where those public interests come together, being able to find common ground in that space is really fundamental to success.

How can somebody in the Department, faculty or students, take advantage of their connection to you? 

Scott Butler carrying the Olympic torch.

Scott Butler carrying the Olympic torch in the run up to the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.

Well, there are a couple of different ways. We have engineers on staff who are always looking at emerging processes of emerging technologies. If there’s something that is coming up where there’s direct application to linear assets like roads, sewers or water mains, certainly we’d be prepared to assist in terms of connecting researchers, faculty and grad students with municipalities who are the primary custodians of a lot of these assets.  

We’ve also entered research partnerships in the past. It’s always something we’re prepared to do, particularly when that interface between private, public and academic realities can be found.  

It’s an interesting model having this advisory committee to understand how both public and private interests interact with academia. I think that it’s a really great opportunity to be associated with a world class research institution. 

What would you be doing right now if you weren’t the executive director at Good Roads? 

I think in my misbegotten youth, I had dreams of either pushing the ball up in the backcourt for the Detroit Pistons or possibly patrolling the right wing for Crystal Palace in the Premiership, but neither of those came to fruition.  

But seriously, I love my job right now and I’m always thinking about how I can make the best use of this opportunity I’ve been given here…unlike all those long begotten professional soccer and basketball dreams.  

What’s something that a lot of people don’t know about you?

I have carried the Olympic torch three times. Besides the Vancouver games in 2010, I carried it for the Calgary Games in ‘88, which is a clear indication of how old I am.

Learn more about Civil Engineer’s Industry Advisory Board

By David Goldberg 


Academic-industry partnership leads to improved methods for managing sulfur compounds in mining sites

University of Toronto researchers Tara Colenbrander Nelson and Dr. Kelly Whaley Martin collecting water samples at Hudbay’s 777 mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba for use in their innovative “reactive sulfur” monitoring technique. (Photo: Prof. Lesley Warren)

A mine straddling the border of Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba will be the first site in the world to deploy an innovative new technique for monitoring and managing sulfur compounds, including thiosalts.

The strategy improves understanding of possible impacts in the receiving environments, and has far-reaching applications for global mines processing sulfide containing ores.

“Not only does this new method improve our data collection and help us better understand and manage our environmental liabilities, it also simplifies Hudbay’s logistics and reduces analytical costs, given that this mine is located far away from commercial laboratories,” says Landice Yestrau, EP Superintendent, Environmental Compliance at Hudbay.

The global-first strategy has just received regulatory approval, and was co-developed by an international research team led by U of T Engineering Professor Lesley Warren (CivMin), including Dr. Simon Apte of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and Canadian mining company Hudbay Minerals, Inc.

The details of the newly developed process are laid out in a paper published in June 2020 in Mine Water and Environment.

“Thanks to this world-first research, we are now able to measure the total possible sulfur risk with this new method. It’s clear that the previous industry standard ‘thiosalts’ methods under-report these risks in our effluent and receiving waters,” says Shirley Neault, Manager, Environment and Systems, Hudbay Minerals. “This is a major win for everyone.”

The technique is faster, cheaper and more accurate than the current industry standard methods. This innovative in-situ environmental management method is critical due to the mine site’s remote location.

Mitigating thiosalt impacts, which can cause toxicity, acidity and contamination in receiving environments if not properly managed, is a concern for mines around the world because the majority of metals come from sulfide minerals.

The Saskatchewan government’s recent approval further signals the critical need to capture and measure risks associated with the long-standing issue of sulfur compounds and bolsters the industry’s future water stewardship strategies.

“Now that mines can effectively track possible sulfur risks, the ability to proactively manage impacted waters is improved and environmental stewardship goals become actionable steps,” says Warren.

Hudbay’s 777 mine produces both zinc and copper, and is located near the town of Flin Flon, which sits on the border between Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The new “reactive sulfur” method is one of many coming out of Mine Wastewater Solutions: Next Generation Biological Treatment through Functional Genomics.

This large-scale research project, led by Warren, is funded by Genome Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, and industry partners including Hudbay, Glencore Sudbury INO (Integrated Nickel Organization), Rambler Metals and Mining, EcoReg Solutions Incorporated (ERSI) and Ecometrix – along with sector agencies Mining Association of Canada (MAC), Ontario Mining Association (OMA) and Mine Environment Neutral Drainage Program (MEND).

The multidisciplinary project applies functional metagenomics, geochemistry, biochemistry and modelling to mining wastewaters to develop innovative biological monitoring, management and treatment tools.

The collaboration illustrates the power of academia and the private sector, supported by governments, to develop research-powered solutions to address complex, multidisciplinary problems that transcend borders.

“Partnering with a global, multi-institutional team has allowed us to collaborate on research priorities and generate a wealth of new knowledge accelerating real outcomes at site,” says Neault. “These researchers offer tremendous expertise and together we are driving a range of biological treatments and innovations at our mines.”

 

By Rachel Wallace


The Mining Wastewater Solutions Project (MWS Project) is jointly funded by Genome Canada (LSARP program), Ontario Genomics, Genome Quebec, Ontario Government (MRI, ORF-RE program) and industry mining company partners (Glencore Sudbury INO, Hudbay Minerals and Rambler Metals and Mining).  The international research team includes Dr. Lesley Warren (University of Toronto), Dr. Jill Banfield (Univeristy of Callifornia, Berkeley), Dr. Christian Baron (Université de Montréal) and Dr. Simon Apte (CSIRO).  Industry partners also include Ecoreg Solutions and Ecometrix consulting companies, and MAC, OMA and MEND sector agencies.


Grad student profile: Mengqing Kan, PhD candidate

Mengqing Kan (CivE PhD candidate). (Photo courtesy Mengqing Kan)

In advance of the coming Graduate Research Days, February 24 & 25, CivMin contacted previous participants to get their point of view on the event and their research goals at U of T. Our Q&A is with PhD candidate Mengqing Kan.

 

Can you please tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Mengqing Kan. I am from China. I got my bachelor’s degree from Simon Fraser University, majoring in sustainable business. Then I went to the University of Michigan to pursue my master’s degree in Environment and Sustainability. At U of T I am supervised by Prof. Daniel Posen and Prof. Heather MacLean. I am interested in researching carbon capture and utilization technologies. What attracted you to bring you to U of T?
I decided to come to U of T because my research interests aligned with those of my supervisors and the SPM group. Professors Posen and MacLean were recommended by my master’s supervisors, who provided me advice on PhD programs. Also, because my master’s thesis is about plastics, and Prof Posen has published multiple articles on the subject, I was familiar with Prof Posen’s work before I decided to apply for a PhD. I had an interview with them before to GRD. What kind of experience did you have with Graduate Research Days (GRD) last year?
Last year I was able to participate in GRD online. We used an internet portal to view a video tour of the labs, which was provided by several current students. We also went to other rooms to speak with professors and current students; depending on how many people were in the room at the time, it might be one-on-one or group discussions. It exceeded my expectations because I had enough time to talk to my interested professors, and existing students addressed my questions about the school and program. Had you been to Toronto, or anywhere in Canada, before?
I lived in Vancouver and studied in Simon Fraser University for four years. I have travelled around in the west coast, but I never visited Toronto before. How did you find the city when you first arrived? What made an impression?
When I first arrived, I liked the city. I find commuting by bike in downtown Toronto is incredibly convenient due to the availability of shared bikes and bike lanes. Did you already know Toronto is the most diverse (multiculturual) city in the world?
I did not know that. But I feel Toronto is a very diverse city. Especially at U of T, as many of my classmates and people in my research group came from diverse backgrounds. What kind of impression did you have of the U of T campus upon your first visit?
Because U of T St. George campus is in downtown Toronto, I found it is very convenient to subway stations, gallery, museum, shopping malls, restaurants. Do you now have a favourite place to visit on campus, or perhaps in the nearby neighbourhoods?
I like Philosopher’s walk. Philosopher’s Walk is a leafy walkway at the St George campus. It is a short distance from Trinity College. The Walk’s gorgeous natural setting makes me relax. It’s a good place to gather and walk. You started in September 2021, so now have a bit better idea of what you want to research (correct?). Can you tell us a bit more about this? 
I am interested in use life cycle assessment and mathematics optimization model to investigate how do the various CCU pathways help Canada achieve net zero emissions by 2050 while maximizing economic returns. Do you have any advice for graduate students considering attending GRD this year?
I think GRD is a great opportunity to know our interested supervisors. I recommend prospective students to do some research about professor’s research area; this will help with the communication. What’s next for you in the future?
I will keep working on my research. This summer I plan to attend an academic conference. Is there anything fun/unusual hobby or talent you’d like to share with us?
I like playing table tennis and Guzheng, a traditional Chinese musical instrument.

Grad student profile: Zoe Hoskin (CivE MASc candidate)

Zoe Hoskin (CivE MAsc candidate). (Photo courtesy Zoe Hoskin)

 

To mark the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Friday, February 11 CivMin sat (virtually) with civil engineering MASc candidate Zoe Hoskin to discuss their experience exploring research options, impressions of attending U of T and living in Toronto. 

 


Could you tell us a little about yourself, when you started in CivMin at U of T.

I started at U of T in September 2021. I’m originally from Toronto, first growing up in The Beach then in Brampton (about 40 minutes fromToronto). My undergrad was at McGill in Montreal. I’m researching indoor microbiomes, so different microbes in the built environment within buildings.  Right now my topic is on studying SARS-CoV-2 RNA in indoor spaces. We’re using quantitative filter forensics to try to estimate how much SARS-CoV-2 RNA is in a given amount of air in indoor space, like a room within a house.

Zoe Hoskin doing a decay test on portable air cleaners using incense to emit particulate matter in the lab in Sanford Fleming (photo courtesy Zoe Hoskin).

What attracted you specifically to U of T?
I really wanted to do research that had some significance for human health and/or environmental protection, and the building science research going on at U of T ties both together nicely. It’s a really fantastic opportunity to work with [co-supervisor] Professor Sarah Haines, given her expertise in the microbiology of built environments and also [co-supervisor] Professor Jeffrey Siegel with his expertise with quantitative filter forensics and beyond. I feel really lucky I have this opportunity to learn so much new stuff every week and improve my skills in a lot of different areas.

You’re originally from Toronto, moved away for your undergrad, then now moved back to Toronto, but much more centrally located. How do you like living downtown?
 I like it. It’s a little bit different now, because of the pandemic, but it’s nice that it’s walkable. It’s nice being close to groceries, my friends to High Park and to campus. I can’t wait until concerts, comedy clubs, and queer events open up again–the kind of stuff that Toronto is known for.

You talked about your research area and supervisors Profs Haines and Siegel. They’ve covered a lot of ground on this topic during the pandemic, and continue to do so. Where will you be doing this research to assess these indoor environments?

We did a wave of experiments in homes of people who tested covid-positive, placing portable air cleaners in the rooms of people who were isolating, as well as in other places around the house. We then did RNA extractions and RT-qPCR on the dust on the filters of the portable air cleaners, and we finally did a filter forensics calculation to estimate the average number of copies of SARS-CoV-2 RNA present in each cubic metre of air in the room.

We’re hoping to expand this method to buildings with higher occupancies as restrictions open up.

This kind of research sounds like it would be a great benefit to the public at large. Is this sort of research being done anywhere else that you’re you know of?
Yes, Professor Siegel, and other researchers, have been doing filter forensics on other microbes and indoor air contaminants. This technique is important for schools, hospitals, social housing, and other shared indoors environments. Likewise, there’s wastewater analysis being done as a different means of environmental monitoring of the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA that gives data on the geographical scale of municipal areas rather than individual rooms/buildings. Professor Haines has also done research on environmental monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 using bulk dust collected from different locations/textiles within homes.

Zoe Hoskin in Wallberg Memorial Building doing RNA extractions from dust from filters. (Photo by Prof. Sarah Haines)

This reminds me of a now famous study from Hong Kong, known as a super-spreader event from SARS in 2003. It was a single infected person in a multi-unit building who wound up spreading the infection throughout to other not directly connected units. Could a comparison of this instance be made to your kind of research?
Yes, definitely, it’s really relevant for buildings that are attached and multi-unit buildings, especially social housing, because those types of buildings have more shared air between more occupants.

You’re still fairly new to U of T. but do you have any tips for other grad students coming into to the city, and U of T campus,  for the first time?
I would say ask lots of questions at the beginning, because it’s normal to be really confused, especially in the first semester. There’s so much new stuff about being a grad student in general.  In terms of Toronto, hopefully by this summer or fall there will be lots of different and interesting events, multicultural food festivals and concerts happening again.

Your ability, now during COVID protocol restrictions, to socialize with other grad students or other people is a bit restrained. You have to deliberately contact them, right? Is that what you’re finding?
Yes, I think it’s kind of like what our social life has become in general – keeping up with a few close friends, rather than meeting lots of people and hanging out in large groups.

How are you finding the workload right now, and how are you balancing?
This is my second semester and I think balancing my workload is it’s going a lot better this semester. I learned a lot through trial and error about time management during the first semester. I think it also helps to be really clear with your supervisor(s) about expectations, how long you should spend on certain tasks, research timelines, and grant application timelines. I think it’s really important to keep nurturing the other parts of your life, like friendships, hobbies, and other things that are important to you totally outside of school and work.

Do you do anything else outside of school for social life, entertainment or distraction – anything fun or unusual?
Outside of school, I like to do songwriting, play shinny, and hang out with my friends

 

By Phill Snel

 

 


Michael Collins, C.M.: Order of Canada and career reflection

University Professor Emeritus Michael Patrick Collins, C.M. recounts finding out about his nomination
for an Order of Canada, and teaching style gleaned from a seventh century scholar.

University Professor Emeritus Michael Patrick Collins, C.M. (Photo by Judy Collins)

 

“I had to keep it secret,” recalls CivMin’s University Professor Emeritus Michael Patrick Collins from his cottage in Minden, Ont. The initial contact from Rideau Hall, the governor general’s residence in Ottawa, regarding his impending appointment to the Order of Canada was an email asking for a phone call regarding “a confidential matter.”

Two weeks prior to the official announcement on Dec. 29, 2021, the first inkling Collins had been nominated for one of Canada’s highest Honours was revealed during a phone call, along with the request for discretion. “It was a really nice way to get the news.”

“It was wholly unexpected, and I had no idea some my colleagues put me forward for this recognition. It is an award I’ll be very proud to wear. What a great way to end a career,” he reflects.

Collins’ appointment to the Order of Canada is “For his seminal work as an internationally renowned structural engineer who has focused on the behaviour of concrete subjected to shear.” The appointment is to a Member of the Order (C.M.). 

Quick to give collaborative credit to faculty colleagues and research-stream students, Collins says, “I’ve had a very enjoyable time as a university professor with teaching and research. Together we managed to achieve some success to the design of reinforced concrete. We found some flaws and spent some 20 to 30 years to make changes with our research at U of T.”

“We believe we’ve improved the safety of reinforced concrete structures everywhere – buildings, bridges, nuclear containment, industrial facilities and beyond,” he says elaborating further. The contributions resulted in the understanding of nonlinear behaviour of reinforced and prestressed concrete structures.

As a youth he attended St. Bede’s College (a high school) in New Zealand, and later read The Venerable Bede’s (672-735 A.D.) book on the History of the English People. He was immediately fascinated by the scholar’s philosophy, which read, “It has ever been my delight to learn and teach and write.” Since then Collins has delighted in applying this sequence to his own academic development. Extrapolating the logic he says, “It’s exactly the right order: first you learn, then you’re able to teach and refine it. Then you’re ready to write.”

His Modified Compression Field Theory, based on novel experimental techniques, has transformed the shear design of concrete structures from restrictive empirical procedures to rigorous, general, easy-to-follow models and has been used as the basis for widely-used computer programs such as Response-2000. His theories have been incorporated into design specifications all over the world.

“In addition to his profound research contributions, Professor Collins’ legacy includes the many undergraduate and graduate students he guided over the years, who are now having their own powerful impact on civil engineering and many other fields,” says U of T Engineering Dean Chris Yip. “On behalf of the Faculty, my warmest congratulations on this well-deserved honour.”

Finding himself in Boulder, Colorado with an expiring teaching visa in 1969, and hoping to stay in North America, Collins explored an opportunity for employment at the University of Toronto. “They were looking for some teaching faculty, and I got it!” This fortuitous move resulted in career spanning 52 years at U of T. 

Collins, otherwise containing his extraordinary news, shared the secret with immediate family over Christmas, swearing everyone to secrecy until the official announcement. He lives with his wife Judy in Oakville, Ont., has two adult children, a son and a daughter, with families of their own, as well as five grandchildren.

By Phill Snel
with files from Tyler Iriving


Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada, announced 135 appointments to the Order of Canada on December 29, 2021. The new appointees include 2 Companions (C.C.), 39 Officers (O.C.), 1 honorary Member and 93 Members (C.M.). 


Researchers investigate health effects of fracking in B.C.’s Northeast

U of T’s Élyse Caron-Beaudoin and Marianne Hatzopoulou are working together to shed light on how fracking impacts air quality for B.C. communities and residents’ exposure to contaminants (photo by Johnny Guatto)

With thousands of wells and counting, the Northeast region of British Columbia is one of Canada’s most important hubs of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the process of blasting pressurized liquid at rock formations to fracture them and release the natural gas trapped inside.

Part of the region sits atop the Montney Formation, a massive, football-shaped tract of land that stretches into northwestern Alberta and is believed to contain one of the world’s richest reserves of shale gas.

But in addition to releasing gas, fracking also causes the emission of chemicals that can cause or exacerbate health problems, including birth defects, cancers and asthma. And while communities located near fracking areas have raised concerns about the health impacts, there has been a dearth of Canadian studies on the topic — until now.

Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, an assistant professor in environmental health in the Department of Health and Society at the University of Toronto Scarborough, is lead author of the only Canadian studies to have explored the health impacts and exposure to contaminants associated with fracking. The latest study, published in Science of the Total Environment, found high levels of some volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in tap water and indoor air in the homes of pregnant women living in the Peace River Valley in Northeast B.C. The study was designed in partnership with the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, the West Moberly First Nations and the Saulteau First Nations.

“Overall, there are consistent associations with negative health effects,” says Caron-Beaudoin, who co-leads one of the only research groups actively investigating the health impacts of fracking in Canada and previously ran a smaller pilot study that found high levels of trace metals in urine and hair samples of pregnant women in two Northeast B.C. communities.

“What we don’t have a lot of in the literature is exposure assessment — measuring the level of exposure of local communities to chemicals that are potentially emitted or released during unconventional natural gas operations.”

To help fill this gap, Caron-Beaudoin is teaming up with Marianne Hatzopoulou, a professor in the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, to shed light on how fracking impacts air quality and exposure to contaminants.

The project combines Hatzopoulou’s expertise in air quality research — modelling road transportation emissions, assessing urban air quality and evaluating population exposure to air pollutants — with Caron-Beaudoin’s scholarship in environmental health to lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the environmental and health justice implications of fracking.

It’s being supported by a $120,000 grant from XSeed, a funding program that aims to catalyze inter-disciplinary research collaborations involving scholars from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering and one of U of T’s other academic divisions.

Hatzopoulou’s first task is to develop air quality models — computer simulations that estimate the concentration of air pollutants generated by an activity, and the degree of population exposure to these contaminants — for various fracking scenarios.

“In urban environments, we try to quantify how much a car emits while it’s driving one kilometre,” says Hatzopoulou. “In industrial settings, we may try to understand how much is emitted from the stack as a function of the production of a certain material. With gas fracking, we try to understand what is being emitted during the different life stages of gas wells.”

The modelling, which involves combining existing measurements, data from regulatory agencies and data from published literature, includes creating an “emissions inventory.” It’s effectively a database containing information on the pollutants generated by different kinds of wells across their various stages of operation.

“What the air quality model does is resolve how air pollutants being emitted in the environment are going to disperse because of wind, meteorology, etc., and how they are going to chemically react with other species that are present in the atmosphere. Eventually, the output includes concentrations of multiple air pollutants that individuals are exposed to,” Hatzopolou says.

“Once exposures from the model are assigned to various individuals, we want to investigate how they relate to measurements conducted in homes and other markers in biological samples.”

This is where data from Caron-Beaudoin’s studies — she measured chemicals in indoor air and tap water, as well as the hair and nails of pregnant women — come into play.

“The urine gives you an indication of short-term exposure and the nails and hair more of a long-term exposure, so we can trace their exposure patterns back in time using those different types of samples,” Caron-Beaudoin says.

By probing the associations between Hatzopoulou’s modelled air pollution data and the chemical and biological samples gathered by Caron-Beaudoin, the researchers hope to develop a better understanding of the links between fracking activity and exposure to toxins.

Caron-Beaudoin’s team have also been working on developing exposure metrics related to well density, proximity and the different stages of well operation. That includes well pad preparation, drilling, fracking and gas production. The association between those metrics and modelled fracking emissions will also be investigated.

Ultimately, the goal is to generate evidence — and a suite of tools — to help estimate exposure to contaminants, an area where little knowledge exists due to the exorbitant cost of carrying out ongoing exposure studies.

“A big challenge of exposure assessment is the logistics and cost — it costs a lot of money to go to remote areas and have air quality sampling and water quality sampling,” Caron-Beaudoin says. “Hopefully our project can provide tools to estimate exposure accurately without having to rely on traditional exposure assessment methods that are costly and difficult to implement.”

Hatzopoulou adds that she hopes their work can be leveraged to inform regulations and engineering decisions that make it possible to curb the detrimental health impacts of fracking. What if well numbers are capped in certain areas? Should exploration be concentrated in certain spaces? How can air pollution be minimized through smart engineering decisions?

“This study will provide health and exposure information, which are lacking when regulatory agencies are currently issuing permits for fracking,” Hatzopoulou says.

A more immediate priority is to empower communities with knowledge about the impact of fracking operations on their health. Such information is critical given that the communities located near Canada’s fracking hotspots are disproportionately rural and Indigenous, and are therefore already disadvantaged by health and economic disparities.

“First and foremost, it’s important to arm communities with data about their exposures, what they’re breathing and the impact of what they’re seeing every day,” Hatzopoulou says.

“That’s the goal,” Caron-Beaudoin adds. “To share the data and results with communities so that they have as much information as possible to help make decisions on the types of industrial development happening on their territory.”

 

By Rahul Kalvapalle

 

This story originally posted by U of T News


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