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Scientists Design Cheap, Effective Water Quality Test to Empower Communities
With an estimated 3 billion or more cases worldwide of waterborne disease caused by unsafe water supplies annually, scientists at a AAAS workshop presented the prototype of an inexpensive, easy-to-use water-quality diagnostic that allows communities in the developing world to monitor microbial contamination in their drinking water.
The diagnostic, being developed as part of the joint U.S.-E.U. initiative AQUATEST, will cost less than 10 U.S. cents and will estimate levels of E. coli, bacteria that indicate contamination with human and animal waste and the possible presence of harmful pathogens.
"In previous decades, there has been a greater emphasis on providing people in developing nations with reliable access to water than on the improving water quality," said Ranjiv Khush, principal at The Aquaya Institute, a partner in the AQUATEST initiative. "In recent years, epidemiological studies of simple, household-level water treatment measures have demonstrated that improving water quality, independent of increasing water supplies, also provides significant health benefits. Good, readily available water quality diagnostics are crucial for determining where to focus efforts on improving water quality."
The AQUATEST project, which brought together organizations including the World Health Organization, Oxfam GB, and the University of Bristol, was presented at a 5 January workshop hosted by Office of International Initiatives and the Center for
Science and Innovation for Sustainable Development at AAAS to engage scientists and policy officials from the federal government, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations.
Late last year, members of the AQUATEST team began traveling to countries around the world including Sri Lanka and China, engaging water resource scientists and relevant policy makers in workshops, and encouraging them to provide feedback on the prototype.
"With a goal of holding workshops every six months, we try to engage both policy officials, researchers, and field implementers at these events," said Khush, a former AAAS S&T Policy Fellow. "We want feedback from all perspectives—political, scientific, and field-based."
AQUATEST is funded under the E.U.'s Sixth Framework Programme to meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of halving the current number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015.
Experts estimate that diarrheal diseases cause at least 2 million deaths per year, mostly in children and infants. Many of those who become sick do not have access to clean drinking water.
"Around 200 people per hour die from unsafe drinking water... it's clearly a humanitarian issue and an issue of human dignity," said Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer of AAAS and moderator of the workshop. "Science and technology can now be harnessed to make sustainable improvements to human rights around the world."
While it is still under development, the first-generation AQUATEST device will be a simple, culture-based system that will allow untrained users to estimate levels of E. coli contamination in their water without any requirement for laboratory or technical facilities.
Steven Gundry, holding the AQUATEST water-quality diagnostic tool
The disposable diagnostic, made of biodegradable plastic, is also extremely durable and portable, making it much easier for a community in the developing world to use.
"With static labs, you have expensive equipment that requires a high-caliber staff," said Steven Gundry, senior lecturer at the University of Bristol in the UK and coordinator of the AQUATEST project. "But with a disposable test, you eliminate a lot of those high costs."
With a preparatory study set to expire later in 2007, scientists hope to have full research and development funding by January 2008 and field-testing as soon as 2009.
The Aquaya Institute, based in San Francisco, Calif., is a nonprofit organization founded by Khush and Jeff Albert, also a recent AAAS S&T Policy Fellow. It aims to develop science-based solutions to the global fight against waterborne disease through field-based programs, technology development, evaluation, and knowledge-sharing.
In addition to working on AQUATEST, Aquaya collaborated with the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health to provide water purification powder to communities in Indonesia affected by the December 2004 tsunami.
24 January 2007