RICHARDSON , Texas (Feb. 21, 2005) – A non-profit organization founded by a scientist at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) is helping improve the health of residents of remote villages in the Kingdom of Nepal through a grassroots effort to mitigate the presence of the poisonous element arsenic in the region’s drinking water.
Started on a shoestring a little more than a year ago by Dr. Linda S. S. Smith, a research scientist in UTD’s Geosciences Department, the group, called Filters for Families, distributes low-cost – and in some cases, no-cost – filters designed to remove the naturally occurring arsenic that laces the area’s well water.
The goal is to reduce a major health threat to perhaps millions of people in Nepal alone – and possibly many more in surrounding South Asian countries.
During her first trip to Southern Nepal in 2001 to conduct research on the arsenic contamination phenomenon, Smith said, she “found villages where numerous people were suffering from arsenic poisoning and nothing was being done to help them.”
Samples of the water drawn from shallow wells, she said, nearly all showed contamination, some at astoundingly high levels – as much as 650 parts per billion (ppb) versus the 10 ppb level considered safe in the United States.
Those drinking such water often exhibit signs of poisoning, including blackened palms due to the death of nerves and skin that sloughs off the soles of feet. Arsenic poisoning, or arsenicosis, is also thought to lead to cancer, gangrene and other serious health complications, including death, Smith said.
“The problem is the shallow wells, consisting of iron pipes driven by hand into the ground, which tap into groundwater containing arsenic being released from the sediment coming down from the Himalayas,” Smith said. “Surface water, like streams, tends to be fine, since the water becomes oxygenated when exposed to the air.”
Following a second visit to Nepal in 2003, Smith returned to Dallas determined to help alleviate the suffering of the villagers she had met while doing research halfway around the world. Last January, she founded Filters for Families.
To date, funding for the group’s efforts has been sporadic, Smith said, coming mostly from a handful of Dallas-area individuals, a local company named Hidden Values, Inc., and members of several churches, including Highland Park Methodist Church and Formosan Christian Church in Garland.
Fortunately, the fix for the contamination problem is relatively simple and inexpensive – a “biosand” filter costing less than $20 each. Based on a design by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working in Nepal, the filter is made from a plastic bucket filled with sand, gravel, a basin of iron nails and other materials that trap the arsenic as water passes through.
The filters are capable of cleansing 25 liters of water per hour, enough to meet the needs of 15 people, Smith said.
To date, Smith’s group has distributed 172 of the filters to the Nepalese. The very poor pay nothing for the filters; those with greater means may be asked to contribute anywhere from 100 to 300 Rupees for the device – an amount equal to $1.25 to $4 U.S., according to Smith.
Families that receive a filter are also given a supply of B-complex and multi-vitamin supplements to help reverse the effects of arsenic in the body – a process that can be accomplished in a year if begun early enough. Filters for Families has distributed enough vitamins to treat more than 1,500 people, Smith estimated.
The group’s arsenic mitigation efforts have, Smith admitted, only begun to scratch the surface of a serious, widespread health problem. She cited World Health Organization estimates that arsenic-contaminated water is a risk to as many as 450 million people in the Indo-Gangetic plain, a wide swath of South Asia that includes parts of Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
But Smith is not deterred by such numbers. Having just returned from a four-month stay in the region, she is anxious to begin her fourth visit there. She plans to do so in March, provided political uncertainty wrought by a recent coup by Nepal’s king and the country’s military doesn’t impede travel to the kingdom by outsiders.
This time, Smith may stay on indefinitely. She plans to continue her dual role as researcher, studying the effects of deforestation on arsenic in the soil, and aid worker, providing more filters to more families in more villages.
“I call it research with a heart,” Smith said.
For additional information about Filters for Families, please visit the web site http://filtersforfamilies.org.
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