Simple Filter Has Potential to Bring Drinking Water to Developing Countries

A simple, affordable household filtration device can reduce by up to 40 percent the incidence of diarrhea, one of the leading causes of disease and death in developing countries, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) reported on March 19.

Preliminary results of a study on the system were presented in February at the third annual Thirsting to Serve Water Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich. More detailed findings will be presented and published later this year.

"This technology has the potential to bring safe drinking water to many people in developing countries around the world who don't have access to it now," said Mark Sobsey, PhD, professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC's School of Public Health. "We can tremendously improve people's health and quality of life if we can help them get a reliable source of clean drinking water. Our study shows that simple biosand filters actually do improve water quality and consequently improve the health of everyone in the home."

Sobsey and researchers in UNC's School of Public Health compared rates of diarrhea and the condition of drinking water in homes in two villages near Bonao, Dominican Republic. They monitored about 150 households without filters for four months, assessing the rate of illness. Then, about half the houses were given biosand filters -- concrete containers that hold gravel and sand. All households were monitored for another six months. The team's initial analysis showed the filter reduced diarrheal disease among household members by an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent, including in highly vulnerable young children less than 5 years old. At the end of the study, filters were given to all participating homes.

"These kinds of filters have been used in the developing world since the 1990s, but there was only anecdotal evidence that they actually improved health," said Christine Stauber, a UNC doctoral candidate who helped direct the project in the Dominican Republic. "It was really exciting to collect scientific evidence in an objective study that showed the filters actually worked, at least in these communities."

Dr. Gloria Ortiz, a UNC postdoctoral fellow, also helped direct the project in the Dominican Republic. She recently visited the villages and said residents told her that the filters make a great difference in their lives.

"They told me they no longer need to worry about sick children who have to miss school, or about taking the children to the doctor or finding money to buy medications to treat diarrhea," Ortiz said. "Many told me that since they've been using the filters, no one in their house had gotten a single case of diarrhea. This is a tremendous step in improving their health and well-being."

Mark Sobsey: http://www.unc.edu/depts/dwrc/Researchers/MDSobsey.htm

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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