WEF's membership newsletter covers current Federation activities, Member Association news, and items of concern to the water quality field. WEF Highlights is your source for the most up-to-the-minute WEF news and member information.

June 2009, Vol. 46, No. 5

Top Story

Simple, Local Means to Cleaner Water

For most Highlights readers, clean, safe drinking water is as convenient as the turn of a faucet. But in most of the world, this is not the case. Even in some areas where water distribution systems exist, the water contains disease-causing bacteria and microorganisms. However, several researchers and organizations are working to develop simple and effective water filters that can be produced and maintained locally in communities worldwide.  

Porous Clay Pots
One such device looks more like something you’d plant a flower in than use to produce clean drinking water. A simple, porous clay pot placed in a 19-L (5-gal) plastic bucket with a spigot has the potential to save millions of lives each year, according to Vinka Craver, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Rhode Island (URI; Kingston).

Working in collaboration with the nonprofit group Potters for Peace (Nicaragua) and colleagues at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville), Craver is testing the effectiveness of porous clay pot filters and working to ensure that they are accepted in local communities, according to a URI press release.

Potters for Peace began to distribute the filters in 1998, but research groups only recently began studying them to make sure they work properly, Craver explained. “I was the first to present in a scientific publication a mechanistic study of their effectiveness at removing bacteria,” she said.

Local high school students distribute filters. Students help Vinka Craver’s study by acting as interpreters. They also are learning how to use GPS and test water for Escherichia coli, Craver said. Photo courtesy of Craver. Click for larger image.

This porous clay pot filter was first developed in 1992 by Fernando Mazariegos of the Central American Institute for Industrial Research and Technology in Guatemala, Craver said. Mazariegos called the device “Ecofiltro.” Potters for Peace and other nongovernmental organizations, such as the Ixtatan Foundation (North Garden, Va.), the organization with which Craver collaborates, have distributed these filters widely. 

The filters, which can be manufactured using local materials and labor, are made with a mix of clay and sawdust and can be impregnated with colloidal silver. When the clay is fired, the sawdust burns out, leaving a network of fine pores that filter out bacteria. A solution of colloidal silver can be painted onto the pots to kill bacteria.

The pots are household devices that filter between 2 and 2.5 L/h (0.53 and 0.66 gal/h). Even though that’s not much water, it’s plenty for drinking and hand washing, Craver said.

The clay filters remove between 97% and 99% of bacteria, Craver explained. The variation is due to the different properties of regional clays.
The filters are tested for appropriate flow rate before distribution. Photo courtesy of Daniel Restivo. Click for larger image.
 /assets/0/86/108/668/773/774/18935/b2313a95-b599-4945-a4d2-f9beee3e5e8b.jpg  “The worst scenario, using very bad clay without colloidal silver, you get 97% removal,” Craver said. While the filtered water still may not meet U.S. drinking water standards, it helps make local tap water cleaner. The cost to make the pots varies with location, Craver said. The goal is to have the pots made by local craftsman using locally available materials.

“Sometimes you have the clay in the backyard of the potter or the brick maker, and sometimes you need to go a couple of miles to collect it,” Craver said. The cost per pot varies between US$5 and US$15.

For the last 3 years, Craver has been studying the use of the filters by 70 families in San Mateo Ixtatan, a Mayan community in Guatemala, the URI release says. Between 35% and 40% of filter users see improved health, she said.

The filters inside the kiln after firing. Photo courtesy of Vinka Craver. Click for larger image.

Rapid Sand Filters
Another researcher is working to develop a different type of point-of-use filter system. James Amburgey, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of North Carolina (UNC; Charlotte), has created and is testing a rapid sand filter combined with a chemical pretreatment.

Simplicity is the primary objective of Amburgey’s rapid sand filter system. “The idea is to make it as simple as possible,” he said. “All that is needed is some PVC [polyvinyl chloride] pipe, sand, and inexpensive treatment chemicals.”

Ferric chloride and a pH buffer are added to the water, which is then passed through a rapid sand filter. The filter is essentially a piece of 75-mm-diameter (3-in.-diameter) PVC pipe about 0.3 m (1 ft) long filled with the same type of sand that would be found at a water treatment plant, Amburgey explained.

“One significant challenge with sand filters is in removing Cryptosporidium oocysts,” Amburgey said. “One ‘crypto’ is 5 µm in diameter, but the gaps between grains of sand are approximately 75 µm. So, we have to get the crypto to stick to the sand grains.”

This is where the chemical pretreatment comes into play. In its natural state, Cryptosporidium is negatively charged, as are sand grains, so they repel one another. The chemical pretreatment changes the Cryptosporidium surface charge to near neutral, which eliminates the natural electrostatic repulsion and causes it to be attracted to and stick to the sand grains through van der Waals forces, according to a UNC press release. The coagulant also makes the oocysts clump together, as well as stick to other suspended solids. The clumps then can be captured by the sand filter, Amburgey explained.

Chemical coagulation followed by filtration alone is not a new idea. What is new is that Amburgey’s pretreatment mixture doesn’t require optimization.

Coagulation conditions usually have to be optimized for each application, and this makes it difficult to implement such a system in the developing world, Amburgey said.

However, the target pH and coagulant dose that Amburgey has chosen should work universally, he said. “The real beauty of this method, and the only thing that I think is really innovative about it, is the applicability of the method to any type of water,” he said.

In research using a prototype of this system in his lab, Amburgey and his students have conducted preliminary tests on waters from local rivers, creeks, and wastewater treatment plants. Their results are typically greater than 99% removal for Cryptosporidium-size particles, a UNC press release says.

“We were looking at Cryptosporidium removal,” Amburgey said. “From the perspective of removing these 5-µm particles, [the rapid sand filters] performed pretty well.” The researchers compared their results to what point-of-use slow sand filters could achieve and found the chemical and rapid sand combination much more effective.

Additionally, the system is cheap to manufacture. Because the filter is simply a piece of pipe filled with sand, it costs only a few dollars. Also, instead of using filter sand, locally available materials, such as crushed granite, could be used for the filter media, Amburgey added. 


“I think I’ve created a set of conditions where you could treat anything from tap water to 50% wastewater effluent,” Amburgey said.

While drinking 50% wastewater effluent after only a coagulation and filtration step is unheard of in the developed world, Amburgey explained that he went to that extreme because some source waters are that contaminated. “In the third world, if you’re living in a contaminated water area, you might not have any choice,” he said.

Selling the Idea
Developing these technologies is only the first step in making a difference, Craver said. The bigger challenge is explaining the need for their use, she noted.

“The first time you go to a community, they don’t realize that they are getting sick because of the contamination of water,” Craver said. The residents might acknowledge that the water is dirty but don’t see the direct connection between this and health.

Undergraduate student Alice Wang conducts a test on the rapid sand filter created by James Amburgey. Photo courtesy of Mike Hermann. Click for larger image.

“It’s not only a water problem,” Craver added. These communities “also have a minimum or nonexistent sanitation system,” she said. “The food sometimes is irrigated with untreated wastewater.”

Taking care of the drinking water side is important, but several studies have shown that food security and wastewater treatment also must be addressed to have a real effect on health, Craver explained. 

— Steve Spicer, WEF Highlights
Making a Difference
WEF Employee Takes an Environmental Vacation

Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) employees’ commitment to the environment is apparent in their work and daily routines. But one employee has taken this dedication to the next level.

Jessica Rozek, Production assistant at WEF, has been working throughout the year with a volunteer organization to improve the education and environmental knowledge of children in a vocational school in Mandalay, Burma.

  /assets/0/86/108/668/773/774/18935/387598f5-64e7-46ec-80d6-dbeefa122af1.jpg  Rozek first traveled to the school during the winter of 2007. She participated in a workshop to help teachers learn new techniques for teaching large classes that have a wide range of age and education levels.

This March, Rozek went back to the school for 2 weeks to hold an environmental education camp and to start some longer-term projects. “The goals are to start a recycling program, improve sanitation, and improve education at the school,” she said.
Jessica Rozek (second from right) stands in front of a compost pile she helped build at a school in Burma. Photo courtesy of Rozek. Click for larger image.
This year, approximately 30 children ages 6 to 15 participated in the camp, which was held during Mandalay’s summer season. The 9-day camp included water quality monitoring, a field trip to the local recycling center, planting container gardens, and identification of different types of environments.

“We did a lot of reuse activities,” Rozek said. “We used water bottles to plant plants, and we made art projects with trash.” She also helped build a compost pile at the school and taught school staff and children what food can be composted and how to maintain the compost pile.

The recycling center field trip included a stop at a sorting center and at the central recycling center, where materials are collected by a private group and melted down to create such items as hospital beds and beams for buildings, Rozek explained. In addition, she worked on writing a proposal to start a recycling program at the school. The camp was a part of a larger campaign meant to “bring about environmental awareness at the school,” she added.

As a part of this larger program, Rozek spent a portion of her time in Mandalay creating a budget to purchase soap for the school’s bathrooms. The proposal included information on the yearly expenses and how the soap would be dispensed. “They don’t have soap in any of the bathrooms,” Rozek said. 
While in Burma this year Jessica Rozek also helped coordinate a field trip to the local recycling center. Photo courtesy of Rozek. Click for larger image. 

Rozek also brought four World Water Monitoring Day™ test kits to Mandalay to teach children the importance of keeping the water clean.

/assets/0/86/108/668/773/774/18935/a05d0ae8-e221-4e38-aabc-c5abb113a697.jpg   Rozek explained that a typical volunteer day began at 7:30 a.m. and often lasted until 11 p.m. as the volunteers rushed to buy supplies and run errands, in addition to holding camp activities and English conversation classes.
Above, a group tests the local water with WEF's World Water Monitoring DayTM test kits. Right, children perform the kits' dissolved oxygen test. Photos courtesy of Rozek. Click for larger images. 
Throughout the year, Rozek works with a core group of five people to manage the program, acquire funding, and decide how to carry out the organization’s goals while at the school. “We try to do as much as we can [while in the United States],” she explained. She communicates with other volunteers via e-mail to accomplish whatever she can before visiting the school.
Any related expenses in the country currently are covered by grants, but the volunteers are responsible for funding travel expenses to Mandalay. Rozek also took vacation time off from work to travel to the school. “I don’t want to take my vacation time and go lie on the beach,” she said. “It’s not fun for me. … I like to be productive, and I like to have a purpose.” Rozek plans to continue working with the organization and is open to the idea of further international volunteer opportunities that come her way. For more information, contact Rozek at jrozek@wef.org

— Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights

Share Your Volunteer Experience
Do you have a water-related volunteer experience? Do you know someone who is making a difference in improving water quality or sanitation? Let us know, and your story might be featured in an upcoming issue. Contact Highlights Editor Jennifer Fulcher at jfulcher@wef.org or (703) 684-2400, ext. 7480. 

From the President: Spring Provides the Opportunity To Engage the Public in Watershed Protection

  /assets/0/86/108/668/773/774/18935/124c5b59-2842-4f79-b900-a5c60d493bfe.jpg  As we enjoy the excitement and rebirth of spring, we should take this time to engage the public in watershed protection. As water professionals, we know the challenges of nonpoint source pollution and the need for urban communities to minimize their impacts on local watersheds. We also know that the best way to educate is by engaging people in an activity or exercise that connects to them personally.

As we engage the public in watershed protection, we need to better communicate and demonstrate how even one person’s actions can affect the watershed. For example, according to the 2007 AVMA U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, published by the American Veterinary Medical Association (Schaumburg, Ill.), approximately 75% of U.S. households own pets. Since a majority of pet waste is disposed of directly to the environment, consider how much of it finds its way into watersheds. Pet waste in our watersheds not only adds organic matter, nitrogen, and phosphorus to water but also can spread diseases — such as campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, and toxocariasis — to humans that come in contact with the waste material.
Rebecca West, 2008–2009 WEF President.

My guess is that if we start a conversation with our friends and neighbors about the impacts of pet waste on watersheds and its risks to public health, it may encourage them to think differently about the ways they manage the waste and further promote the use and placement of public pet-waste stations and bag dispensers in such areas as public parks, greenways, and beaches.

We also can have a conversation with friends and family members who live near the water. As people continue their quest to live closer to water, we see development encroaching on watersheds while the density of this development continues to increase. Also, as people mover closer to water, they often remove or adversely affect natural riparian buffers. Promoting and demonstrating the protection or replanting of these areas will protect watersheds. Furthermore, there are numerous home “do-it-yourself” and garden supply stores that allow volunteers to host a weekend workshop on ways to landscape or re-establish a natural buffer, riparian area, or rain garden.

There are many water stewardship activities that individual or group Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) members and WEF Member Associations can perform to engage the public in watershed protection. A few ideas are listed below:

  • Host a World Water Monitoring Day™ activity. I encourage you to check out the Web site at www.worldwatermonitoringday.org. Promoting watershed monitoring with our water monitoring kits enables the public to get personally and physically engaged in water and provides an opportunity for us to share the importance of protecting local watersheds.
  • Host a river, stream, lake, or beach sweep day. Select a day or two each year for community groups to gather and collect and dispose of garbage found in and around local waterbodies. You will be amazed at how much and what types of trash will be collected. This activity also provides an opportunity to recycle the trash.
  • Coordinate with local groups to stencil storm drains in the community to remind the public not to use them for disposing of chemicals, yard waste, and garbage. This provides another opportunity to talk about how watersheds work and are interconnected to the daily lives of the public. You also might want to share WEF’s brochure about how to dispose of household wastes with those stenciling the storm drains.

Spring is the time of year when people love to get outside and enjoy the beauty of nature. We should seize this opportunity to engage the public, friends, and family in conversations, fun activities, and outdoor adventures that communicate everyone’s role in protecting our valuable watersheds and becoming better water stewards. Carpe diem! 

— Rebecca West, 2008–2009 WEF President

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