Clean Water, Little Fuss: PATH and Cascade Designs Bring Purifiers to Africa

7/14/09

Taking a sip from a kitchen faucet rarely causes someone’s heart to pound or adrenaline to flow, but for millions around the world, drinking the local water is just another version of Russian roulette. With every mouthful of water, people in developing countries imbibe bacteria and viruses that can and often do cause lethal diseases, especially in children. According to the World Health Organization, diarrheal diseases from impure water kill 4,100 children every day.

Seattle-based PATH is one of many organizations that seek to alleviate the poor health conditions found around the world. Distributing vaccines, educating about AIDS, and improving general healthcare in underserved parts of the world are all part of PATH’s mandate. In 2008, using a grant from the Laird Norton Family Foundation, PATH began exploring ways of using commercial water-purifying technology for small villages and towns. “We did a broad outreach and looked at different ideas,” said Kendra Chappell, manager of the pure water project at PATH. Eventually, PATH decided to partner with Seattle-based Cascade Designs, a company that makes camping equipment. Cascade, with money from the U.S. Defense Department, had developed a cheap and clean method of water purification through a process called electro-chlorination. “It was a good match,” Chappell said.

The purifier created by Cascade uses electricity to create chlorine, which quickly kills parasites, bacteria, and viruses. Salt is added to the unclean water, and then the mixture is zapped by a few volts of electricity. (The electricity breaks the salt into its component elements of sodium and chlorine.) “It turns brine into a powerful disinfectant,” said Laura McLaughlin, an environmental engineer and project manager at Cascade. The system carefully measures the amount of chlorine generated, so that only enough is made to clean the water—not so much that the water becomes undrinkable. “Our system is geared toward providing the right dose,” McLaughlin said.

Other methods of water purification are not usually as thorough or effective. Water filters cannot keep out viruses because they are much smaller than bacteria, and even iodine cannot kill all … Next Page »

Eric Hal Schwartz was an intern in Xconomy's Seattle office. Follow @

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