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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Healthier Water

Air Date: Week of

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Proctor and Gamble has a new inexpensive water purification system that could save millions of lives each year in the developing world. Host Steve Curwood discusses the technology with Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News, and Greg Allgood, associate director of Proctor and Gamble’s Health Sciences Institute.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. And coming up, a hit of fresh air at the oxygen bar. But first, more than five million people die each year because they lack access to clean water. Simply cleaning up existing water supplies could prevent most of these diseases. But that can often be an expensive undertaking. Now the company Proctor and Gamble has created a water treatment system that can purify dirty water to U.S. standards, and do it cheaply. Science News editor Janet Raloff wrote about this new technique in a recent issue of the magazine. She joins me now. Janet, how does this water treatment work, and how is it different from what’s currently available?

RALOFF: Well, in the past, especially in developing countries where these diarrheal diseases are killers, people have thrown chlorine in the water to disinfect it. But a lot of the gunk that’s in the water, that discolors it, gives it nasty smells and flavors—this includes dirt and stuff like that— it can bind the chlorine and basically deactivate it, so it doesn’t do the kind of disinfection job you really would like. This new process basically takes all that nasty, smelly gunk out of the water, if there was any, and makes it into a sediment that drops to the bottom of your jug or bottle, whatever. And then you come out with clear water, and this clear water can then be effectively disinfected by some residual chlorine. And this is all done by taking a little packet of chemicals—this is a packet about the size of those ketchup containers you get at the drive-through hamburger joint— and you just pour it into the water, stir it for five minutes, let the gunk settle to the bottom, pour that water now through some fabric to collect the sediment, and let the water sit for another 20 minutes.

CURWOOD: What exactly can this treatment get out of water to purify it?

RALOFF: Well, first of all, it disinfects the water. And when tests were made where they threw a bunch of germs into the water, and then ran this batch of chemicals on it, it would remove all but like a hundred millionth of the bacteria that were present, or a ten thousandth of the viruses. It also removed all but a thousandth of the parasites. And they tested typical, like, parasites you might find even in the United States, cryptosporidium and giardia. But, more surprising, I guess, is that it was also useful at removing metals, like lead, some kinds of organic compounds, like DDT, and presumably other pesticides as well. And it took out more than 99 percent of the arsenic, which is a big problem in certain parts of the world, including parts of the western United States, and Bangledesh.

CURWOOD: So you’ve got a packet that you put in—how much water? What does that cost?

RALOFF: They tried to bring the cost down to something that many people in the developing would be able to afford. And so they did some pilot tests in Guatemala, and asked what kinds of things would you be willing to pay for every day. And people there pay ten cents for an egg everyday. And so they tried to peg it for that dime-a-pack price. That will clean ten liters of water, so we’re talking a penny a liter.

CURWOOD: What about the long term use of the chemical to disinfect. What evidence is there that it could perhaps have any harmful effects?

RALOFF: Well, I think we’re the example of whether it would have a harmful effect, because basically they’re using the same kinds of compounds, in very small quantities, that are used to disinfect U.S. water supplies.

CURWOOD: Now you’re a science journalist, and you see companies come and go with all kinds of amazing claims. How do you feel about this one?

RALOFF: Well, you know, I was really dubious. It sounded like another new product, and we at Science News don’t cover new products. Interestingly, when we talked to the Centers for Disease Control—which has a big outreach program for cleaning up drinking water throughout the world— and asked them about it, they’d run some tests, and they said there is literally nothing else like this. That sort of got our attention.

CURWOOD: Janet Roloff is Senior Editor of Science News. Thanks for taking this time.

RALOFF: Thank you Steve.

CURWOOD: We turn now to Greg Allgood, Associate Director of Proctor and Gamble’s Health Sciences Institute. Hello, sir.

ALLGOOD: Hi. Glad to be with you.

CURWOOD: Greg, we just spoke with Science News editor Janet Raloff, about how this new technology works and why it’s important. I’d like to ask you about some of the business and financial issues here. More than a billion people in the world survive on less than a dollar a day, so ten cents may not seem like a lot to us here in the West, but it’s a good piece of someone’s income in these communities. How is Proctor and Gamble working to ensure that the people who desperately need this water treatment will be able to get access to it?

ALLGOOD: We’re doing a couple of things. One of the things we’re doing, in order to reach the people who need the product the most, is providing the product at no profit for providing emergency water. We’re providing pure water purifier, for example to the International Rescue Committee, and they’re taking it into Iraq. We’re also looked at working with groups such as John Hopkins University, to go into other countries, and are seeking U.S. government funding in order to do that.

CURWOOD: How much of a trailblazer do you think your company is in terms of getting the finances to work on this. This has been a conundrum for the world. We have good technologies, and yet the poorest people don’t have access to them.

ALLGOOD: A lot of our large companies, U.S. based and Europe based, are trying to learn how to develop products which can sustainably serve people at lower incomes. We call it the bottom of the pyramid, because, actually, they’re the foundation. More than four billion people in the world are generally not consumers of the large companies in the U.S. and Europe. What we believe is that if we can develop products which are affordable, and meet a real need of these people in the developing world, is that we can develop sustainable businesses. Which will be important to our growth, but, more importantly, will be able to help them get out of the poverty cycle.

CURWOOD: Greg Allgood is Associate Direct of Proctor and Gamble’s Health Sciences Institute. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

ALLGOOD: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

[MUSIC: Moby “Porcelain” Winter Chill 2 (2001)]



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