When water is safe, there is nothing better to drink. It’s good for teeth, skin, weight control, and even the ability to think clearly. However, drinking water contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, heavy metals, or other harmful substances can cause diarrhea, brain damage, infertility, and cancer.
Bottled water is not a guarantee of the safety of the water. Not only is it not always safe; Bottled water is a thousand times more expensive than tap water, and plastic packaging and shipping have high environmental costs.
Despite the need for clean water and the myriad of pollutants that can contaminate it, there is no generally available method that anyone can use to test the safety of their water quickly, cheaply, and accurately.
Almost 50 years ago, this also applied to pregnancy tests. Early advertisements for home pregnancy tests showed that women “have the right to know” whether they are pregnant “with the least possible hassle and effort in the shortest possible time.” This should also apply to the drinking water quality.
Since current water safety tests are still cumbersome for most people, the goal is to make them as easy to use as a pregnancy test so that they can be easily used in homes, daycare and schools.
As professors at Northwestern University researching how to ensure water safety for everyone, we’re working to democratize water testing by developing a new type of drinking water test that is fast, cheap, and accurate. and to quantify water insecurity worldwide.
The intent is to implement this new water test in a format that non-scientists can easily use; One that is affordable and delivers results for those who need it most in an hour. The technology is far from ready for sale. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that the lead tests are as user-friendly as possible.
These tests differ because they use the power of naturally occurring sensors found in biology. Using tools from the emerging field of synthetic biology, the sensors can be programmed to change color when a target chemical is present in the water.
Because these sensors work outside of cells, they can be freeze-dried into tiny white clumps that are shelf-stable. These sensors are ready to indicate water pollution with just a drop of water, eliminating the need for complicated laboratory equipment to use.
These tests can quickly detect lead, copper, arsenic, and fluoride in water with more analytes on the horizon. Northwestern and a spin-off that one of us co-founded are teaming up to detect COVID-19 in wastewater.
Potential uses include lead testing of millions of Americans who live in areas with a lead supply line that carries water from the city to their homes. This is important as many children are unwittingly exposed to the lifelong harm of lead toxicity.
Arsenic testing will be valuable to millions of people around the world who are exposed to naturally occurring arsenic in their groundwater. Tests for E. coli This would be useful in emergency situations such as the millions in Texas living with boiling water notifications in February or Mississippi recently facing daily water crises.
Of course, most drinking water in the United States is safe. Municipal water treatment systems usually do an excellent job of testing and treating standard contaminants, such as E. coli, but sometimes that’s not enough. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 100 “contaminants of new interest” that are potentially harmful pollutants, most of which are not investigated at all.
Impurities can also be introduced after the water has left the treatment plant, e.g. For example, when utility lines run from city utilities to homes, as is the case with many homes in Washington, DC and Chicago. In addition, 42 million Americans rely on well water, which is almost never untested.
For these reasons, it is important to understand the quality of the water before drinking it in order to know if filtration is required and, if so, what type of filter to use.
The field of rapid water diagnostics is still in its early stages but holds great promise in democratizing knowledge about the safety of a substance that is vital to health and wellbeing in the US and around the world. With knowledge comes power and change; Empirical evidence of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan was key to promoting the injustices there worldwide.
Global water quality has been threatened by a number of disasters that are both invisible and inevitable: failing infrastructure, massive fires, sewage overflows, agricultural runoffs, and forever chemicals being sprayed in unexpected places.
Given the very real risks of drinking contaminated water, an accurate understanding of water quality is essential for both action and advocacy. This requires cheap, fast, and reliable home testing methods that anyone can use.