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Science Wednesday: Need Effective Virus Removal? Try Rust.

2011 April 13

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Ian Bradley

What if, in addition to earning a degree from a top-ranked engineering program, you could actually change the lives of several million people? With the help of the EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet Award (P3), students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are doing just that.

For several years, the Mayan community of Socorro, Guatemala was afflicted with acute and chronic gastrointestinal diseases stemming from poor drinking water quality, soil-transmitted helminthes (worm) infections, and malnutrition. These illnesses resulted in missed school, emotional and economic hardship, and in some cases, death.

In an attempt to alleviate this crisis, the people of Socorro assembled a council and, with the help of Wuqu’ Kawoq, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, contacted the University of Illinois Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UIUC) requesting assistance. As a result of a three-year partnership, relief has come in the form of a simple, effective, and ever-evolving water treatment system: the biosand filter (BSF).

BSFs have been chosen by hundreds of humanitarian groups as the best method for improving water quality in developing countries and, as of 2009, it is estimated that over 300,000 BSFs have been implemented in over 70 countries. Surveys reveal its wide acceptance by users due to the improved appearance, smell, and taste of the treated water. However, research has identified a critical shortcoming: BSFs are not highly effective in removing viruses.

Current research performed at the University of Illinois has shown that the incorporation of iron shavings, a product available commercially across the world, can remove more than 99.999% of viruses in water. The iron rusts, forming positively charged oxides to which negatively charged viruses attach. Because of the water chemistry, the iron doesn’t re-enter the water and the user never tastes the iron in the filtered water. The only end result is cleaner, safer drinking water.

In 2009, students from the University of Illinois completed a P3-supported project to install 120 traditional BSFs in Socorro. Over the next two years, the research is being expanded with the help of partners such as the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG) to bring iron-amended filters to those in need.

For little cost and effort, currently implemented BSFs could be amended with locally available iron sources, providing a substantially improved barrier against waterborne viruses and, hopefully, bringing relief to millions of people in the process.

See winning projects at the National Sustainable Design Expo, April 16 and 17, 2011 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

About the author: Ian Bradley is an environmental engineering graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has been working with EWB-UIUC and The Guatemala Water Project for the last three years.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. roy kaufmann permalink
    April 13, 2011

    incase rusted steel shavings in a filter bag of Mycelx ?
    use iron water from wisconsin as a pre filter media ?
    magnetically charge particals ?
    iron water taste good fresh
    use the iron from filtered water ?
    I use filter media and (stokes law) to provide clean water exiting
    industrial property and would like any assistance in improvement of my methods.

    Thank You,
    Roy Kaufmann

  2. melissaEPA permalink
    April 13, 2011

    This is great stuff! I’m really looking forward to seeing all the smart, innovative solutions to environmental challenges down on the National Mall in DC this weekend… Hope other readers of Greenversations & Science Wednesday will come check out the exhibits too!

    Keep up the good work, Ian!

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