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Thursday, May 6, 1999 Published at 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK


Light work made of hormonal pollutants

Ultraviolet light is used to destroy pollutants

A cheap and 100% effective way of cleaning the female hormone oestrogen out of water supplies has been developed by scientists in Northern Ireland.

BBC Science's Corinne Podger assesses the new technology
More of this pollutant enters the environment as more and more women use contraceptive pills and hormone replacement therapy. Even at low levels it can cause sexual deformities in fish and other animals that live near water.

In humans, it has been linked to falling sperm counts and testicular and breast cancers.

[ image: Animals which live near water can be affected by oestrogens]
Animals which live near water can be affected by oestrogens
Normal water treatment does not remove the oestrogen but now scientists at the University of Ulster have found a way.

Dr Brian Eggins explains: "We've discovered that if you shine an ultraviolet (UV) light on titanium dioxide, the titanium becomes activated, and capable of converting the oestrogen to carbon dioxide - the harmless everyday gas that puts the bubbles in your fizzy drinks."

Ultraviolet light would be effective on its own, but would work very slowly. With the titanium dioxide as a catalyst, it becomes a powerful oxidising agent which breaks down most organic material.

[ image: A cheap and effective method could be used world-wide]
A cheap and effective method could be used world-wide
Dr Eggins' colleague, Heather Coleman, believes the treatment will also be effective against common agricultural pesticides like DDT, products containing polychlorobiphenyls, and some detergents used in industrial cleaning processes.

The titanium dioxide itself is a non-toxic chemical used in toothpastes. It is not used up during the cleaning. Furthermore, the researchers believe sunlight could provide enough UV light, meaning the technique could be applied easily in any part of the world.

The researchers are building a pilot plant, which is expected to go into operation shortly. The most likely use for the technology is in treating public water supplies.

But industrial plants could also harness the method to prevent pollutants reaching the water supply in the first place.

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