Science Wednesday: Searching for a Sustainable Way to Remove Arsenic from Groundwater

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Many people in Bangladesh use groundwater for their drinking water. In some parts of Bangladesh, arsenic levels in groundwater are more than 100 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit of 10 parts per billion. Already, 40,000 Bangladeshis are showing signs of arsenic poisoning. Without intervention, 10% of the deaths in this country of 140 million people could be caused by arsenic poisoning.

I am part of the Berkeley Arsenic Alleviation Group (BAAG), a group aiming to provide affordable, sustainable technologies to remove arsenic from groundwater. Our goal is an efficient and cheap technology that removes arsenic and can be easily operated and maintained by local communities.

Our technology, partly funded by an EPA People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Award research grant, takes advantage of the fact that arsenic binds to rust. We first put iron into water and then use electricity to corrode the iron and produce rust. Then by filtering the water, or allowing the rust to settle, we can remove the arsenic.

From an engineering standpoint, the design efficiently and sustainably removes arsenic from water . But we can’t just drop it off and leave.

First, we need to figure out if the technology will be affordable for local communities. Are there cultural barriers that might prevent its use? Can this new technology be easily adopted and used?

To develop a sustainable solution to real-world problems, we need an interdisciplinary approach with collaboration among engineers, social scientists, and most importantly local communities.

Because local communities are so important, we are proposing a community-scale clean water center. It will be operated by the local community, for the local community—selling clean water at an affordable price (~$0.02 per person per day). It means partnerships with local people, the key to the sustainability of our technology.

We are now collaborating with local universities, local village leaders, local communities, and local entrepreneurs. By operating a treatment center themselves, the community will be empowered, leading to more likely acceptance and sustainable operations.

100L Electrode AssemblyAbout the author: Case van Genuchten is a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley and is a member of the Berkeley Arsenic Alleviation Group (BAAG).

Editor’s Note: To meet researchers and see demonstrations of this and other exciting P3 projects, visit the National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall in Washington, DC, April 24 and 25.