Water Toxicity Sensor Challenge

Funding Agency:
Environmental Protection Agency

Monitoring the increasing number of contaminants in water is an ongoing concern for water treatment systems and water resource managers. Pesticides, heavy metals, personal care products, natural toxins, and a host of other organic and inorganic chemical pollutants and their byproducts can increase toxicity in water and create exposure concerns for humans and aquatic organisms.

Current methods for detecting and identifying many of these contaminants are expensive, time-consuming, and may require the use of specialized laboratories and highly trained personnel. The numbers of sensors, instruments, tests, labs, personnel, and other costs can become an economic burden for water treatment system managers and water resource managers. If the identity of the potential contaminants is unknown, this process becomes even more complex and costly. 

Because of these limitations, there is great interest in developing a next generation of sensors that detect the toxicity of water due to the presence of contaminants.  Some chemicals can activate toxicity pathways inside living cells. This causes a disruption to normal biological processes, like breathing or digestion, which can lead to harmful health effects, including diseases like cancer.  Motivating factors for this approach include:

  • Public health protection: A toxicity-based sensor could quickly alert water managers to the presence of one or more contaminants that may have an adverse physiological effect, including contaminants that are not currently well characterized. It would also help address the need for managing groups of contaminants. 
  • Environmental water quality monitoring and forecasting: Portable, field deployable, effects-based monitoring would complement existing contaminant-based efforts and the data generated could enhance science-based decision support tools.
  • Reduced need for animal toxicity testing: Robust toxicity sensors could reduce our dependency on some animal-based toxicity testing methods currently used in water management.

To help meet the need for better ways to monitor toxicity in water, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its Challenge partners are launching the prototype portion of the Water Toxicity Sensor Challenge.  The Partners include EPA, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command (USAMRDC), the Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW), the Water Research Foundation (WRF), and the Water Environment Federation (WEF). 

For this Challenge, solvers are being asked to develop a prototype sensor and demonstrate its ability to detect a response to toxicity due to the presence of one or more contaminants at concentrations relevant to human health effects.  The prototype sensor should detect toxicity faster and cheaper than current methods. 

 Interested solvers are requested to register by June 10, 2023.


Grad/Prof Students


Engineering and Physical Sciences
Environmental & Life Sciences

External Deadline

June 10, 2023