Fighting arsenic: News of chemistry professor's water filter is spreading around the world

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Dr. A.K.M. Munir photo
A woman of Alampur village in Bangladesh's Kushtia district, one of the worst arsenic-contaminated areas, collects water from a SONO filter. It was invented by University of Pittsburgh alumnus Abul Hussam, who has embarked on a mission to help millions solve similar water problems around the world.
Click photo for larger image.

When Pitt alumnus Abul Hussam started finding ways to remove arsenic from drinking water about a decade ago, his primary aim was to help his family and native Bangladesh people, who had been poisoned from arsenic in well water.

But after the invention of his simple and low-cost SONO filter wowed everyone by winning a $1 million National Academy of Engineering prize in February, he has now embarked on a global mission to develop solutions to water problems and help millions around the world.

"Not only from neighboring India, Pakistan and Nepal, I've received requests from many countries in Central and South America and Africa for the filter," said Dr. Hussam, adding that he had already sent filters for testing to some neighboring countries.

According to the World Health Organization, naturally occurring arsenic contamination is a concern in many countries, including Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile, China, India, Mexico, Thailand and the United States.

Drinking arsenic-rich water over a long period can lead to arsenicosis, resulting in various health conditions, including skin problems (such as changes in skin color and hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet), skin cancer, cancers of the bladder, kidney and lung, and diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet.

The SONO filter is not only now preventing serious health problems in hundreds of thousands of people in Bangladesh since first being distributed to the most hard-hit families in 2001, no new cases of arsenicosis were detected in Bangladesh where people are using the filters, even in the worst contamination areas.

"Patients drinking the filtered water for two years show arsenical melanosis [skin pigment changes] disappeared with significant improvement in their health," said Dr. Hussam, who is now an associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.

After his success in developing the household water treatment system, Dr. Hussam is now working to scale the filtration system for community and large-volume use.

To help him develop and disseminate sustainable technologies for clean water, GMU is planning a Center for Clean Water and Sustainable Technologies that would gather faculties and experts to develop practical solutions to the problem of clean water.

"We are already in contact with University of Maryland and the Swiss Federal Institute [of Aquatic Science and Technology] to collaborate on some aspects that they have expertise," Dr. Hussam said last week.

In Bangladesh and northern India about 500 million people are at risk of arsenicosis, according to Prof. Dipankar Chakraborti, director of research, School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India.

Many tube wells, which were built with international aid to draw groundwater as an alternative to bacteria-tainted surface water, frequently tap into aquifers contaminated by arsenic.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a list of thousands of arsenic-contaminated sites in the United States and at least 10 percent of wells have arsenic concentrations exceeding 10 micrograms per liter, the EPA limit for drinking.

Bangladeshi economist Abul Barkat, who works with his brother Hussam, says arsenicosis is a "disease of poverty" because poor people, who cannot manage a nutritious diet, suffer from the condition more than others.

Dr. Hussam's studies

After receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh in 1975 and 1976, respectively, Dr. Hussam came to the United States in 1978.

He earned his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh in 1982 where he first learned about the use of computer-controlled electrochemical techniques and chemical equilibria for the speciation of arsenic in geothermal water, along with other toxic metals.

To Dr. Hussam, the first challenge in fighting arsenicosis was to develop a precise method of detecting traces of arsenic in the groundwater. He decided to use the computer-controlled electrochemical analyzers, a method he had learned at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Hussam and his other brother, A.K.M. Munir, a physician in Bangladesh, established an arsenic-testing lab in their native district of Kushtia in 1997.

Many of the wells they tested themselves, including two in his home in Kushtia. He drank water contaminated with three to 40 times the maximum amount of arsenic considered safe. He decided to develop a filtration system that most people of Bangladesh could afford. By 1999, he had built a functioning filter, but he continued to modify it.

   
Online graphic

See how the SONO filter works.

   

In the final version of the SONO filter, a top bucket is filled with locally available coarse river sand and a composite iron matrix. The sand filters coarse particles and controls the flow of the water, while the iron removes inorganic arsenic. The water then flows into a second bucket where it again filters through coarse river sand, then through wood charcoal to remove other contaminants, and finally through fine river sand and wet brick chips to remove fine particles and stabilize water flow.

Besides a test by the National Academy of Engineering, the system was tested by several independent groups and two technology verification projects run by the Bangladesh government.

Each filter, costing $35, produces 20 to 50 liters of clean water per hour and can serve two families.

Already 32,500 such filters have been distributed, two-thirds for free. Plans are are being made to deliver more than 10,000 filters to UNICEF and other nongovernmental organizations.

"Although we've guaranteed that the filters would work at least for five years without a toxic waste disposal hazard, the filters installed six years ago are continuing to provide high quality water for drinking and cooking," Dr. Hussam said, adding that the spent materials are nontoxic.

"His filter is a major contribution to science and to the welfare of Bangladeshis. He applied the knowledge from his doctoral studies to a practical matter of great importance," said Dr. Hussam's Ph.D. adviser, Prof. Johannes Coetzee.

The filters are manufactured under the supervision of SONO Diagnostic Inc. and a local organization, at 100 units per day.

Dr. Hussam has already donated about 70 percent of his prize money for the manufacture and distribution of 11,000 filters among the most affected people in Bangladesh.

Because the filter successfully removes virtually every trace of arsenic, groups in other countries have contacted Dr. Hussam. He said negotiations about a licensing agreement in Nepal are on. In addition, he's been contacted by the United States, China and several countries in Central and South America and groups in Nigeria and South Africa have contacted Dr. Hussam in Bangladesh through UNICEF.

He developed a larger filter in June for community and industrial use, with a capacity of producing 1,000 liters of clean water per hour. It's expected to cost about $850.

Meanwhile, 25 percent of the prize money is now being used for research and further development of the filtration technology.

"A substantial part of this research is the basic understanding of some physicochemical phenomenon of surface complexation reaction," he said, adding two graduate, two undergraduate and one postdoctoral research associates are getting support from this money now.

Nothing short of life-changing results is Dr. Hussam's goal:

"The lack of clean water affects millions of people, with illness and lost educational opportunities in childhood, leading to poverty in adulthood, and solving this problem can bring a significant dividend for all in terms of better living."

Editor's note: The George Mason University Foundation oversees the Abul Account, which supports Dr. Abul Hussam's continuing research. People interested in contributing to it can write a check to the GMU Foundation, with a note that the money should be credited to the Abul Account.

For more information on arsenic in drinking water, see The World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs210/en/ The Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/safewater/arsenic/basicinformation.html


Shamim Ashraf is the Post-Gazette's 2007 Alfred Friendly Fellow. He can be reached at sashraf@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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