September 11, 2012
|Chase Waldeck ’13 and Sarah Harrington ’13 walk to a Dominican Village to conduct water chemistry research. Photo by Professor of Chemistry Pedro Bernal.|
The water Sarah Harrington ’13 sips as she walks across campus on route to her next class has never tasted so good. Two weeks after returning from a student-faculty research trip to the Dominican Republic (DR), the chemistry major is still acutely aware of how lucky she is to have a seemingly unlimited supply of clean drinking water at her fingertips. Not everyone is so lucky.
Access to clean drinking water doesn’t come so easily in places like the DR, where rural water supplies can be tainted with e-coli. This summer, Harrington, Chase Waldeck ’13, and Professor of Chemistry Pedro Bernal spent two-week in the DR testing water filters to gauge their ability to filter out e-coli, a bacteria known to cause severe diarrhea and subsequent dehydration.
As part of the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program, the team kicked off the project by studying raw sewage collected from a Winter Park water treatment plant. “They first needed to learn the techniques they were going to use in the field so we could hit the ground running in the DR,” said Bernal, who has been distributing water filters in the DR since 1998. During that time, the Dominican native has given away approximately 15,000 filters in rural communities.
Water purification is important work. According to the United Nations, lack of access to drinking water kills more children worldwide than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. In 2010, the UN’s General Assembly declared access to clean water and sanitation an essential human right
After studying the effectiveness of the filters, the team then traveled to the DR to check if the water produced by the filters was fit for human consumption. . “The reliability of municipal water treatment decreases considerably as you get away from urban centers,” Bernal said.
Over the course of their study, the team found a lot of e-coli bacteria in places where people didn’t take care of their filters. By performing chemical and microbiological tests on water samples collected from a rural community located about 20 minutes from Santiago, the team was able to determine if the filters were doing their job.
|The filtration unit inside a Dominican kitchen. Photo by Chase Waldeck ’13.|
“We visited families that weren’t using the filtration unit properly and you could tell just by looking at the them how unhealthy they were. But for the most part, the e-coli was very low when the filters were used properly,” Waldeck said.
Over the last 15 years, Bernal has led annual student trips to the DR for water purification and community building projects. “This is now part of my life and I have been able to dedicate time and resources to this in ways that if I were at other institutions it would be harder to do,” Bernal said. “I feel incredibly grateful to have something that essentially gives a direction to my life and activities.”
Bernal and his students have yet to form a full picture of the data since the analysis is still ongoing; however, they concluded that education is key to the effectiveness of the filters. “We need to spend more time on the ground to give people the education and the incentives to use them better,” Bernal said.
Besides a new appreciation for clean water, Harrington also walked away from the experience inspired by the intersection of science and service. “Seeing such a potentially harmful problem be alleviated by a simple design and basic education left me with the strong desire to continue working in this area,” said Harrington, who joined a service trip to the DR in 2011. “If anything, this experience only reinforced my desire to help people in rural communities provide basic necessities for themselves.”
By Kristen Manieri