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The Road to Safe Water: Teabag Nanotechnology?

 By Adrianna Kuzma

The United Nations has pledged to make clean water available to developing countries by 2015 (Crossette). Is this realistic? The UN recently completed a progress report on how well they were meeting the goal: “the report admits candidly that the world will not reach the mark, probably by a wide margin” (Crossette). According to estimates noted in this same report: “In rural areas of Least Developed Countries, 97 out of every 100 people do not have piped water and 14 percent of the population drinks [untreated] surface water – for example, from rivers, ponds or lakes” (Crossette). There are wide disparities between and within countries, such that availability is still an issue in many areas.

What’s more, accessibility is not the same thing as potable. Shauna Curry, CEO for Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology, thus commented on the UN Report: “Improved access does not mean the water is safe at point of consumption and we worry this announcement may divert attention away from the still very real, and dire need for safe water” (World). So, the focus needs to shift on best methods to clean the water. One possible solution may be the nano- tea bag, a recently developed water cleaning method developed in South Africa and currently being tested by their Bureau of Standards. Although there are some concerns, this tea bag nanotechnology may prove particularly appropriate in the short term for use in rural areas for several reasons: end point use, low cost, and not requiring infrastructure.

In the past, poor people have been forced to purchase water tokens as a result of the World Bank’s making loans to a developing country conditional of the privatization of their water. Although intended to get water into poor regions quickly, this did not work (as I noted in my last column) because the people did not have the means to pay even modest water fees and instead went to other sources (i.e. untreated surface water). Some argue that infrastructure should get priority over outright aid to developing countries (Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi). By this scenario, nanotechnology would have to wait till road construction was completed, and this is not acceptable.

A South African boy drinking water from a polluted source. According to the World Health Organization, in 2005, diarrhea and malaria ranked 3rd and 4th as cause of death for children under 5 (ctd. in Blue). Photo Inter Press Service News Agency. 2010. Web 21 May 2012. http://ipsnews.net/africa/nota.asp?idnews=52663

The bacteria in water sources often cause outbreaks of cholera. On a weekly basis, according to the World Health Organization, approximately 42,000 people die from diseases related to poor quality water and lack of sanitation (ctd. In Blue). Cholera and diarrhea are fatal if not treated and can be prevented by using precautionary measures. For example, cholera cases can be cut in half by using 7 layers of clean fabric, such as a sari. Using a sari to filter out cholera is fairly simple. First, the person folds layers of clean sari over the water container. Second, the person pours the contaminated water through the layers of sari. This was proven to be very effective because over half of the cholera bacteria are strained out of the water. Diarrhea can be avoided with good sanitation and clean water.

Tea bag nanotechnology would further remove bacteria and also recalcitrant chemicals because it employs a molecular-level understanding of diseases and contaminates to clean water where dimensions and tolerances are in the range of 0.1-100 nanometers (nm), measuring and manipulating matter at the atomic, molecular level. Nanotechnology uses tiny particles of metal, dendrimers, and clays that are called nano-particles. Nano-particles are smaller than the width of a human hair and can offer clean water, but as with any technology- driven solution, there are concerns. Nanotechnology is the science of using nano-sized molecules that are smaller than micro organisms. This makes them the ideal weapon to “catch” micro organisms and contaminants found in water. Nano- particles are so small that they are made up of countless molecules that jointly form a large surface area to catch pollutants in water. For example, the larger spread out surface area of nano-tubes is more effective than the bigger clumps of carbon that are used in most conventional water-cleaning methods. Since the nano-particles are so small, they almost produce a net with their large surface area for the contaminants and pollutants to attach to, therefore, eliminating them.

Developed by a South African scientist, the nano filter is located within a tea bag or sachet that is then placed in the top of a drinking bottle. Bharat BhushanSharma. “Nano-fibered Tea Bag Purifies Water for Drinking at the Cheapest.” Gizmo Watch 16 Aug. 2010. Web. 28 May 2012. http://www.gizmowatch.com/entry/nano-fibered-tea-bag-purifies-water-for-drinking-at-the-cheapest/

This filter holds activated carbon and lining the inside are nanofibers (each one hundredth the width of a human hair) woven together by a process called electro spinning. One of the earliest uses of this type of filter was in Australia, where scientists developed an arsenic-removing filter using silver nano-particles. To use this “teabag” is very simple. First, the teabag is placed in the water for 15 minutes while the nano-particles take care of any contaminants or pollutants in the water. After 15 minutes, the water is clean and safe for drinking (Grimshaw). This point use or household use of nanotechnology has been improved upon by South African microbiologist Eugene Cloete, who added a biocide chemical in the nano fibers within the sachet or tea bag. This evidently avoids the problem of cholera toxins saturated within the filter, potentially released if the filter is not properly disposed. Marelize Botes, a microbiologist who works with Dr. Cloete, explains: “What is new about this idea is the combination of inexpensive raw materials, namely activated carbon and antimicrobial nanofibres, in point-of-use water filter systems. The nanofibres will disintegrate in liquids after a few days and will have no environmental impact. The raw materials of the tea-bag filter are not toxic to humans” (qtd. in Wilkins).  The other improvement (over the Australian version) was to decrease the duration for achieving clean water. Water is poured into the bottle, and when the bottle is full, it can then be immediately consumed.

For developing countries, the fact that the tea bag filter is intended for household or point use solves a major problem: post contamination. Rural areas typically have the least regulated water, and water supply in developing countries is typically not centrally managed. In addition to disease organisms, the ground water in rural areas may be subject to pesticides and nitrates from agricultural work, and these recalcitrant contaminates are not removed by straining methods such as folded cloth. Pumps and boreholes at the community level may not be within reach of some, and even when they are, there are problems with post-contamination. This derives from contaminated containers such as buckets or jerry cans as well as from other people using the community water source, who may inadvertently introduce pathogens. Point of use or household water filters overcome the limitations of such community solutions as bio sand filters.  Moreover, because the water stays in the container where it was filtered, there is decreased possibility of post contamination.

Photo showing the size of the nano tea bag as well as how it is positioned in the lid or upper portion of the bottle. Munyaradzi Makoni.  Nano ‘Tea Bag’ Purifies Water.” SciDevNet. 12 August 2010. Web. 23 May 2012. http://www.scidev.net/en/news/nano-tea-bag-purifies-water.html

Probably the most appealing characteristic of the nano tea bag is that it does not require any additional infrastructure. Attempts to provide plumbing infrastructure are repeatedly subject to lack of centralized oversight, failures in maintenance and governmental corruption at every juncture. In the short term, the tea bag provides an extremely portable and decentralized solution. Pipes do not have to be installed, and even good roads are not essential as they are when delivering water by truck. Those who have proposed that infrastructure comes first (before setting up water cleaning facilities) do not take fully into account the problems occurring when money is provided for infrastructure projects.

Photo showing the nano tea bag as the sieve is ready to be placed prior to attaching the lid to the bottle. “High-tech-tea bags” for drinking water purification.” Resourceneffizienzatlas. Web. 22 May 2012. http://www.ressourceneffizienzatlas.de/en/examples/technologies/detail/article/high-tech-teebeutel-zur-trinkwasseraufbereitung.html

Governments should be involved in the development of nanotechnology water treatment to make it affordable for the public. Unlike a private corporation, a government does not have to pay shareholders. In those regions where governmental agencies are unwilling or unable to provide the kind of coordinating and supportive role seen in India, the UN will need to offer more substantial guidance. For example, in Africa there are countries whose corrupt government officials are known for taking huge salaries. They fail to consider the common good of their citizens. In a recent article, Susan Cozzens noted that a team from Arizona State University found water was being provided in a rural area four hours drive from Pretoria, South Africa; however, it was full of nitrates. Although there was a pilot study to introduce low-cost, nano-structured membranes, the project was halted because there were no incentives for investment. Factors such as the lack of an external monitoring system mean that service providers self-report on the quality of their water.  India has recently set up a commission to regulate nanotechnology, and other countries can benefit by their example. Without penalties for providing untreated water, there is little incentive on a private company’s part to improve water quality (“Nanotechnology”). Other problems include bypassing local contractors in acts of favoritism, neglecting maintenance, and redirecting money to “prestige projects” for political reasons (Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi). The United Nations will need to encourage and work with developing nations to forestall such problems in order to reach Millennium Goals for water.

Compared to conventional water treatment, nanotechnology does not require huge water treatment facilities, and this contributes to making it a low-cost alternative. The nano teabag filter cleans 1 liter of water and then is thrown out. The price of a filter will be approximately three cents. In an issues brief called “Nanotechnology, Poverty, and Disparity,” Jacob Heller and Christine Peterson note that nanotechnology should “enable better and cheaper water enhancement and purification technologies, and aid in disease diagnosis and screening” (Foresight). The United Nations can assist governments by encouraging resource and knowledge sharing and perhaps even negotiate arrangements to reward cooperation by, for instance, providing grants to those innovators who share intellectual property rights with countries unable to pay for them outright. The United Nations can help government leaders recognize the economic benefits of providing safe water to their citizens. As part of what is being called the “next industrial revolution,” nanotechnology may offer important innovations for cleaning water. Eliminating the literal roadblock that missing infrastructure represents may be key to harnessing the power of nanotechnology for the developing world.

Works Cited

“A Glass Full of Water: Point-of-Use Solutions.”  NAE Engineering Grand Challenges Video Feb. 2009 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7MxsDmGEVY

Amalu, Chinyere. “Nanotechnology Water Purification: How Efficient?” Leadership 22 Nov. 2011 Web. 22 May 2012. http://leadership.ng/nga/articles/8731/2011/11/22/nanotechnology_water_purification_how_efficient.html

Bell, Eleanor. “Tea Bag Water Filter ‘Will Eradicate Cholera.’” ABC News. 28 Feb. 2012.  Web. 20 May 2012. http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2012/s3441678.htm

Bharat BhushanSharma  “Nano-fibered Tea Bag Purifies Water for Drinking at the Cheapest.” Gizmo Watch 16 Aug. 2010.  Web. 28 May 2012.  http://www.gizmowatch.com/entry/nano-fibered-tea-bag-purifies-water-for-drinking-at-the-cheapest/

Cozzens, Susan. “Nanotechnology, Water, and Rural Poverty in South Africa.” Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes.  5 Aug. 2011. http://www.cspo.org/soapbox/view/1108051118P45206360ZK/nanotechnology-water-and-rural-poverty-in-south-africa/

“Fighting Water Woes with Point-of-Use Filters.”   Good Environment 15 Dec. 2011.  Web. 23 May 2012.   http://www.good.is/post/sponsored-video-fighting-water-woes-with-point-of-use-filters/

Fostering “Nanotechnology to Address Global Challenges: Water Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.” Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. 2011. Web. 1 May 2012 http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/22/58/47601818.pdf

Heller, Jacob and Christine Peterson Nanotechnology, Poverty, and Disparity: A Foresight. Nanotech Institute Policy Issues Brief Foresight. Nanotech Institute.

Makoni, Munyaradzi.  Nano ‘Tea Bag’ Purifies Water.” SciDevNet.  12 August 2010.  Web. 23 May 2012.   http://www.scidev.net/en/news/nano-tea-bag-purifies-water.html

Salaam and Nairobi, Dar Es. “A Road to Somewhere: What do Africans need most—Aid or Infrastructure? The Economist.  21 July 2011. Web. 24 May 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/18989203

Society for Technology and Action for Rural Advancement.  Department of International Development.  Access to Safe Water for the Bottom of Pyramid  :  Strategies for Disseminating Technology Research Benefits.  Nov. 2010. http://www.dfid.gov.uk/r4d/PDF/Outputs/water/Secondary_Research_Report.pdf

Stein, Chris. “’Tea bag’ Filter Provides Safe Drinking Water.” Inter Press Service News Agency.  2010. Web 21 May 2012.  http://ipsnews.net/africa/nota.asp?idnews=52663

The Blue Planet Network. UN Fact Sheet on Water and Sanitation Web.  22 May 2012.    http://blueplanetnetwork.org/water/UN_factsheet

“Water Institute.”  Stellenbosch University Hope Project 20 July 2010.  3 May 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0ydPMl7hOtA

Wilkins, Allaisdair.  “Nanotech Tea Bag Creates Safe Drinking Water Instantly, For Less Than A Penny.”  i09 Aug. 2010.  Web. 24 May 2012.  http://io9.com/5611927/nanotech-tea-bag-creates-safe-drinking-water-instantly-for-less-than-a-penny

World Health Organization.  Evaluation of the Costs and Benefits of Water and Sanitation Improvements at the Global Level. 2004.  Web. 28 May 2012. http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/wsh0404.pdf

“World Meets Target for Improved Water Access But.”  Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology.  6 March 2012.  Web. 29 May 2012. http://www.cawst.org/en/about-us/news/417-world-meets-target-for-access-to-improved-water-sources-but-neglects-focus-on-safe-drinking-water

About the Author: Adrianna is a homeschooler from Indiana. She loves to sew and has made Regency ball gowns as well as fleece pet beds. She plays the cello, loves cats, and is passionate about caring for the planet. She recently produced a video on bottled water that won a national award.

4 Comments

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  1. Great work Adrianna! This is obviously a very important issue that is often overlooked. I learned a lot from your article.

  2. Dear Adrianna: You write so well. My hope and thought for you is that you pick your course of study at an outstanding college or university where you will be challenged in the pursuit of science and social justice. Find the best minds and surround yourself with them. Good luck in all that you do. Peter Stone

  3. Adrianna- Well written! I am so glad you are bringing this issue to light for a lot of readers. Thank you for your hard work and insight.

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