Two years ago, the National Academy of Engineering established the Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability. This $1 million award was designed to challenge the world's scientists to develop a practical system for filtering arsenic from water supplies in the developing world. The winner is a chemist from Bangladesh who now calls the U.S. home. For Urdu TV's Tabinda Naeem, VOA's Jim Bertel introduces us to Abul Hussam.
Arsenic-contaminated drinking water affects tens of millions of people, especially in developing countries where existing water treatment facilities are too expensive for widespread use. To help solve this public health problem, Abul Hussam developed a simple, inexpensive water filter system, an idea that earned him the Grainger Challenge's top prize.
"We analyzed the water and the first analysis was done with my [family] home [in Bangladesh] that we have been using for 20 years or so,” he told us. “So we analyzed that water and we found arsenic in that well. So, basically, we have been drinking this water for a long time, the family [and] the neighbors.
Born in Bangladesh, Hussam came to the U.S. to earn his doctorate in analytical chemistry. For the past two decades he has taught at George Mason University in the eastern state of Virginia. His passion is environmental research and has spent years working on the arsenic problem, testing hundreds of prototype filtration systems.
"Then came along the Grainger Challenge,” he says. “The American engineering community challenged the engineering community in this country as well as the scientists in this country to devise a filtration system that is cheap, basically inexpensive, that will last longer, and it will work without electricity. And also the filtration system should be green, green in the sense that it will not produce any hazardous waste, solid waste."
His winning innovation is the SONO Filter, a simple, maintenance-free system that uses sand, charcoal, bits of brick, and shards of porous iron. The filter removes almost every trace of arsenic from well water.
The World Health Organization reports that half a billion people in South Asia alone are exposed to arsenic-laced well water, but the problem is widespread affecting countries in South America, East Asia and elsewhere.