“I WORK WHERE people are drinking sewage,” says Susan Murcott, a civil engineer and expert in water filtration systems. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor regularly visits developing countries where drinking water supplies are often filthy and dangerous. There’s no shortage of places for her to work: A billion people worldwide are at risk from polluted water.

In 1998, Murcott attended a conference on women and water in Nepal, which has a major problem with sewage-contaminated water. Arsenic is a groundwater issue there, too, as it is in many third-world countries. Long-term exposure to arsenic is causing epidemics of cancers and other fatal diseases, according to the World Health Organization. When she got back to MIT, she and her students began working on devising a cheap, effective filtration system that villagers could operate easily.

After five years, they came up with the ABF, or arsenic-biosand filter. It’s a container the size of a small, two-drawer filing cabinet, and can be manufactured either in plastic or concrete. The bin is filled with gravel, coarse sand, fine sand, and iron nails. Its total cost is $20 to $25. Murcott says it can work indefinitely with only minor maintenance. The sand and gravel work to remove physical pollutants; the iron nails attract and capture the arsenic. The resulting water is so potable it won’t upset delicate Western stomachs. And it processes 15 to 30 liters of water an hour, much more than other rudimentary filters.

Twenty-five ABFs will be installed in Nepalese villages this year, paid for by a $115,000 grant from the World Bank Development Global Competition. And Murcott is working with business students from MIT’s Sloan School of Management to devise a plan to scale up production globally. In a world where so many are at risk from contaminated water supplies, the ABF offers some hope.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Summer 2004

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