Simple Technique to Purify Water, Contaminated By Disaster Like Hurricane Katrina, Flood...

Simple Technique to Purify Water, Contaminated By Disaster Like Hurricane Katrin

Water supplies are compromised when infrastructures break down due to hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, power blackouts, or terrorist attacks, all prevalent events around the world in the last several years. Reconstruction efforts require rapid re-establishment of the water supply. Boiling water is impractical if electric and gas utilities have been disrupted, and disinfection of contaminated wells involves complicated procedures with no guaranteed effectiveness. Due to these difficulties, the normal disaster response is to provide bottled water to the affected area. Bottled water is not only extremely expensive, but also creates a trash disposal issue resulting from empty bottles. In addition, rapid coordinating of transportation logistics is often impossible.


Water purification is the removal of contaminants from untreated water to produce drinking water that is pure enough for human consumption. Substances that are removed during the process of drinking water treatment include bacteria, algae, viruses, fungi, and man-made chemical pollutants. Many contaminants, such as man-made chemicals and heavy metals, can be dangerous—but depending on the quality desired, some are removed to improve the water's smell, taste, and appearance. There really is no such thing as pure water. As the universal solvent, the moment that purified water is exposed to the environment it interacts, even with carbon dioxide in the air. Water purification therefore is a process describing the treatments employed to meet the objectives of the user.

During 1991 and 1992, EPA records showed over 250,000 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. In Milwaukee in 1993, cryptosporidium caused the largest recorded outbreak of a waterborne disease in U.S. history. An estimated 400,000 people fell ill, 41,000 were treated for abdominal cramps and diarrhea and more than 4,000 were hospitalized. The epidemic has now claimed 104 lives, making it the single largest recorded medical disaster in Milwaukee's history. Cryptosporidium is immune to standard chlorine purification treatment.

A study by the U.S. Council of Environmental Quality showed that the cancer risk among those drinking chlorinated water is 93% higher than among those whose water is not chlorinated.

Numerous bacterial, viral, and chemical food and water threats exist with certain populations such as the elderly, children, pregnant women, those in institutionalized settings, and the immune compromised being at high risk. Recent outbreaks of food and waterborne disease and threats of bioterrorism have focused attention on the safety of US food and water systems. The US government and other entities have developed programs to address challenges associated with maintaining food and water safety. Safety initiatives such as the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis Critical Point (HACCP), revisions to the Food Code, and the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations provide a framework to evaluate current and future challenges to the safety of food and water systems. Dietetics professionals should take a proactive role in ensuring that appropriate food and water safety practices are followed and can also assume major roles in food and water safety education and research.

Engineers have developed a system that uses a simple water purification technique that can eliminate 100 percent of the microbes in New Orleans water samples left from Hurricane Katrina. The technique makes use of specialized resins, copper and hydrogen peroxide to purify tainted water.

The system--safer, cheaper and simpler to use than many other methods--breaks down a range of toxic chemicals. While the method cleans the water, it doesn't yet make the water drinkable. However, the method may eventually prove critical for limiting the spread of disease at disaster sites around the world.

National Science Foundation-funded researchers Vishal Shah and Shreya Shah of Dowling College in Long Island, New York, collaborated with Boris Dzikovski of Cornell University and Jose Pinto of New York's Polytechnic University in Brooklyn to develop the technique. The research published online in Environmental Pollution on Jan. 10, 2007.

"After the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, scientists have had their backs against the wall trying to develop safeguards," said Shah. "No one knows when a similar situation may arise. We need to develop a treatment for decontaminating flood water before it either comes in contact with humans or is pumped into natural reservoirs."

The treatment system that the researchers are developing is simple: a polymer sheet of resins containing copper is immersed in the contaminated flood water. The addition of hydrogen peroxide generates free radicals on the polymer. The free radicals remain bound to the sheet, where they come in contact with bacteria and kill them.

The researchers are working to lower the amount of copper in the treated water end product and improving the system's impact on chemical toxins. Shah believes it could be ready for emergency use within five to seven years.

To develop their process, the researchers built upon a century-old chemical mechanism called the Fenton reaction - a process wherein metal catalysts cause hydrogen peroxide to produce large numbers of free radicals.

Free radicals are atoms or molecules that have an extra electron in dire need of a partner (they obtain the partner by stripping it from a nearby atom, damaging the "victim" in the process). In large quantities, the radicals can destroy toxic chemicals and even bombard bacteria to death or irreparably damage a microorganism's cell membrane.

Applying their technique to water from the Industrial and 17th Street canals in New Orleans, the researchers were able to destroy all of the bacteria within 15 minutes. In tests with laboratory water samples containing even higher bacterial concentrations, the exact same process killed at least 99 percent of the bacteria in 90 minutes.

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