Professor Wins $1 Million Prize for Providing Clean Water, One Village at a Time

Posted: February 26, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Professor Abul Hussam’s water filtering system is improving health and saving lives in developing countries. Most of his $1 million Grainger Challenge Award will go toward ensuring that even more people can benefit from clean water.

By Tara Laskowski

In the United States, turning on the tap and getting clean drinking water is something most people take for granted. We have the luxury of multimillion-dollar filtration systems and deep wells that pump toxin-free water to our homes.

However, in developing countries such as Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, shallow water wells are the norm for villages. Arsenic, a poisonous element, is naturally occurring in these tube-wells, and in Bangladesh alone, more than 18 million people are daily drinking arsenic-contaminated water.

Arsenic poisoning is a slow, painful process that can cause skin cancer, tumors and ultimately death. Affected people can have difficulty working or even walking, and continued exposure can lead to liver failure, kidney failure and the need for amputation of arms or legs.

Abul Hussam

For Bangladesh native Abul Hussam, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Mason for more than 20 years, this threat hits close to home. About 10 years ago, his brother, a medical doctor in Bangladesh, started to see the frightening consequences of arsenic poisoning in his village. He asked Hussam to help develop a way of measuring the arsenic levels in wells.

Measuring the Problem

Hussam did his PhD work in analytical chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. Developing an instrument to measure arsenic levels in drinking water was a perfect match for his interests.

He started with his own family’s well in Bangladesh. To his shock, he learned his family had been drinking water with three times the toxicity level of arsenic for more than 20 years, and there was a possibility his own father had died from arsenic poisoning.

“Measurement is absolutely critical – it is my strength and what brought me to this project – but once you know what you have, now the question is, ‘What can we do about it?’” says Hussam.

That’s when Hussam started looking at ways to build a filter to help provide safe drinking water for his family and neighbors. The challenges required looking at issues such as economy, environment and efficiency. Because Bangladesh is a developing country, the filter had to be inexpensive. Hussam also had to ensure that the materials used were safe for the environment and easy to obtain and reproduce.

After years of research and testing, Hussam and his brothers developed the SONO filter. Simple, inexpensive and made with easily available materials, the filter involves a top bucket, which is filled with locally available coarse river sand and a composite iron matrix (CIM). The sand filters coarse particles and imparts mechanical stability, while the CIM removes inorganic arsenic. The water then flows into a second bucket where it again filters through coarse river sand, then wood charcoal to remove organics, and finally through fine river sand and wet brick chips to remove fine particles and stabilize water flow.

A Distinguished Recognition

When Hussam learned the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) was offering a $1 million Grainger Challenge Award for water filtration systems that removed arsenic from drinking water, he knew his work was perfect for the contest.

After all, the systems had to be affordable, reliable, easy to maintain, socially acceptable and environmentally friendly. They had to meet or exceed the local government guidelines for arsenic removal and require no electricity – everything he had been working on for years.

Last week, he was proven correct. On Feb. 20, Hussam was awarded the Grainger Prize at a gala dinner held in Washington, D.C.

Hussam’s water filter is simple, inexpensive and made with easily available materials.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Three prizes were awarded by the NAE, with the support of the Grainger Foundation, from a field of 70 entries. The Silver Award went to the nonprofit Water for People and the Bronze Award was given to the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program at Procter & Gamble Co. Hussam won the Gold Award.

Hussam’s $1 million prize will go to George Mason Intellectual Properties Inc., (GMIP) a separate nonprofit corporation established to facilitate the transfer of new discoveries made at George Mason University. GMIP will distribute the majority of the award to a Bangladeshi nonprofit organization that will use the funds to increase its production, quality control and training capacities so more SONO filter units can reach Bangladeshi households more quickly. Most of the remainder will fund Hussam’s continuing research in removing toxic cations and anions from drinking water sources. GMIP will keep a small portion of the prize and will pay back the Chemistry Department, which generously funded the tests needed last summer to enable Hussam to enter the contest.

GMIP is also handling potentially still patentable matter in the SONO filter.

Seeing the Difference Firsthand

In 2000, the Hussam family started distributing the SONO filter in Bangladesh. They started with their own village, and donated many of the filters to schools with high arsenic levels in their water.

“At first, the people were not sure if they should listen to us,” said Hussam. But after talking to them about the water and showing them the filter – which cost only $35 and lasts at least five years – people started to believe.

“Now, we hear of women who want to use the filtered water to shampoo their hair because it makes it softer,” says Hussam. “And people say their tea tastes different and their rice is a different color. It’s been very interesting.”

Today, there are more than 30,000 of these filters in homes, schools and businesses in Bangladesh. Hussam hopes that with the prize money they can distribute the filter even more widely and help even more people.

He and his brothers have also seen hospital patients improve dramatically from arsenic poisoning by drinking the clean, filtered water.

“The most satisfying aspect of working on this project is seeing people drinking clean water from the SONO filter and feeling better, and for some, the melanosis [poisoning] has been reversed,” says Hussam. “It is truly gratifying to see results of our scientific knowledge at work in the field for the betterment of human conditions.”

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