By Ryann A. Williams
As a child growing up in Washington, D.C. I remember hearing adults talk about their concerns about the local tap water. Overheard conversations about lead content and murkiness in the water certainly got my attention. As an adult who now works at the Environmental Protection Agency, I know things have greatly improved.
Today, DC tap water is among the least of my concerns. I drink it every day. Frequent testing to confirm its safety and public awareness campaigns by DC Water (the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority) have put my own worries to rest. But in other parts of the world and even in some areas of the U.S., people still have a reason to worry about their drinking water: arsenic.
Globally, millions of people are exposed to arsenic via drinking water and can suffer serious adverse health effects from prolonged exposure.
This is especially true in Bangladesh where it is considered a public health emergency. Other countries where drinking water can contain unsafe levels of arsenic include Argentina, Chile, Mexico, China, Hungary, Cambodia, Vietnam, and West Bengal (India). In addition, parts of the U.S. served by private wells or small drinking water systems also face risks due to arsenic in their drinking water.
Remedies are expensive and both energy- and chemical-intensive.
In 2007, a student team from the University of California, Berkeley won an EPA People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) award for their research project aiming to help change that.
The students set out to test a cost-effective, self-cleaning, and sustainable arsenic-removal technology that employs a simple electric current. The current charges iron particles that attract and hold on to arsenic, and are then removed by filter or settle out of the water.
By the end of their P3 funding in 2010, promising results had allowed the team to extend their field testing to Cambodia and India, and move forward with the licensing and marketing of their product to interested companies in Bangladesh and India.
Today, the same group of former Berkeley students who formed the P3 team now own a company called SimpleWater.
SimpleWater is among 21 companies that recently received a Phase One contract from EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program.
SimpleWater aims to commercialize their product and bring their track record of success in Bangladesh and India to help Americans who may be at risk from arsenic exposure in their drinking water. In particular they’re focusing on those who live in arsenic-prone areas and whose drinking water is served by private wells or small community water systems that test positive for elevated arsenic levels. (Learn more about Arsenic in Drinking Water and what to do if you think testing is needed for your water.)
Thanks to EPA support, SimpleWater is working to reduce the threat of arsenic in small drinking water systems and private wells. With their help, millions of people may soon feel safer about their drinking water, and like me, have one less big thing to worry about.
About the Author: Ryann Williams is a student services contractor with the communications team at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. When she’s not working with the team, she enjoys other team activities like soccer and football.