Water is the key to life on our planet. Staying hydrated should be your key priority about health, however, millions of people struggle to find safe drinking water. World Health Organizations estimates that around 140 million people have to drink water with unsafe levels of arsenic. But now scientists from UCL and Imperial College London have developed a low-cost, easy-to-use arsenic sensor.
People think that arsenic poisoning is an old forgotten problem, but in some places in the world it is actually pretty bad. For example, 20% of all deaths in Bangladesh are attributable to arsenic poisoning. Of course, arsenic tests are available, but they are expensive. Now scientists created a device, which brings the cost of one test down to one dollar. This could save millions of lives, especially in poorer places in the world. Interestingly, the test itself was developed because scientists discovered a microscopic organism that eats arsenic.
Arsenic contamination is a huge problem. Typically laboratories have to be involved to detect arsenic and, as you might imagine, it is just not going to happen in places where people are lacking food. Tests are expensive and time-consuming. That is why scientists wanted to create something that can be easily used at home and that would produce accurate measurements. This test is actually a bit like blood glucose meters used by diabetics – you put a drop of water on a piece of paper and then insert that paper into the device. It then produces a digital reading of the arsenic level in one minute. Time is very important, because current chemical tests take about 30 minutes to complete.
This, of course, is just part of the battle, because information about arsenic contents in drinking water has to be addressed somehow. Sometimes a simple well is the only source of water a family has and it is not going to give it up even if arsenic levels are higher than they should be. Dr David Sarphie, one of the scientists from this project, said: “We were doing some early-stage field trials a few months ago in Bangladesh and a lot of the villagers were actually pleading with us to come and measure their well, because they had no idea how much arsenic was in their water”.
This device has a potential to save tens of millions of lives. It is currently undergoing field testing, but it will still be up to three years until it hits the market. Scientists believe that it is accurate enough and people are waiting for this device to be available.