Once the hub of U.S. steelmaking, Braddock, Pennsylvania is today a mix of abandoned buildings, empty lots and closed shops. It's been that way since the mid-1970s, when foreign competition led to the collapse of the steel industry in the region. While Braddock is a ghost of its former self, newcomers - artists and entrepreneurs - are breathing new life into this former steel giant. 

Jeffrey Schwarz came to Braddock in 2003 to help kids. He developed a summer pottery program and ran it in the basement of the library.  "It was very successful," he says.

The kids had a great time and showed the community, that had labeled them as problems, that they had something valuable to contribute. 

"We showed the [kids] that you can look at the world in a different way," he says.

Schwarz renovated the library basement into the Braddock Pot Shop.The 33-year-old artist says his mission is two-fold:  He still teaches kids and offers pottery classes for adults, but the studio is also the headquarters for the North American Water Filter Project. This group is dedicated to promoting clean and safe drinking water in developing countries.

Clay, sawdust, silver combine to yield clean water

On a good day, with his brother working as a volunteer, Schwarz can make 20 water filters. He says the process is simple. 

"You take clay. You take a certain percentage of sawdust or any combustible material, because saw dust might not be everywhere. You [can] use rice hulls or pine needles, [and] combine that with clay, [and] fire that to a low temperature."

The combustible material burns out, leaving tiny holes that allow water to seep through the vessel's permeable walls.  Schwarz then applies a protective coating made from water infused with bits of silver.

"We paint the inside of it and the outside and swish the rest around the inside of each filter, and then that's done."

Dirty water is poured in the top, and the filter removes the sediment in the water and the protective silver coating kills any bacteria.

Life-saving potential

The filtered water is clean and drinkable according to various scientific tests. Schwarz says it performed especially well in a test linked to an ongoing medical study in South African HIV clinics.

"Two weeks ago, I received a phone call from one of the lead scientists testing the filters, and [they reported] 99.9 percent removal of E. coli, and not just the common or average amount, of E. coli in water. They were testing it at five times the concentration of E. coli typical in water."

Schwarz says the potters' clay filters have great potential.  They can help save lives and stimulate the economy wherever they are introduced.  He would like to train a brigade of water filter technicians to work with potters in other countries.

"Five thousand children die every day from waterborne disease," he says. "How many water filter factories do we need to build around the world to even put a dent in that number?" 

Schwarz says knowing that he can use his art to provide clean, safe drinking water to communities in need so far from home is humbling.

"It makes me feel good. In some ways, I feel that it is almost so profound that I don't really understand it completely."     

Simply put, Schwarz says, "It is the right thing to do."

Video: Making a Clay Water Filter

More than 5,000 children die a day from waterborne diseases.  The North American Water Filter Project promotes access to clean, drinkable water in developing countries. Coordinator Jeff Schwarz demonstrates the process with his brother, Jonathan, in the basement studio of the Braddock Pot Shop. Schwarz hopes to train "a brigade of technicians" to work with potters in other countries.