Water Innovator: Dr. Abul Hussam
By Saima Hedrick
Natural arsenic contamination of groundwater used as source of drinking water is a major problem in Bangladesh, India, Mongolia, China and many other countries.
Arsenic, even at low level (10 micrograms per liter of water), can cause diabetes , nervous system damage, a weakened immune system, and various forms of cancer. I had the opportunity to speak with a distinguished researcher, Professor Abul Hussam, from George Mason University’s (GMU) Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Dr. Hussam is an analytical and environmental chemist who has developed the SONO filter which can remove arsenic from water.
Saima: What gave you the idea to develop an arsenic filter?
Dr. Hussam: Well, that is a long story. The arsenic problem was discovered first in West Bengal, India and then in Bangladesh in 1997. In 1998 reports began to show up in international media confirming that Bangladesh had a huge arsenic problem. At the time, I was working on various trace analyses and knew a little bit about how to measure arsenic. That’s how it all started. There was a West Bengal group that was measuring arsenic levels in my hometown, Kushtia, Bangladesh.
My brother and my relatives were still living there and they asked me to develop a way to measure the arsenic concentration in the tube wells. So my brother and I began measuring and found that 60-70% of the wells in the town were contaminated. I measured the first few samples from the 3 tube wells at my home and found that all of them were contaminated. Then we started to think about a solution since there was no access to potable water except the tube-wells. That is when we began working on a filtration system that could be produced locally, in large quantities, and easily maintained.
Identification of the exact sorbent compound and the testing of the removal methods were done at my lab at George Mason. Once we confirmed that the removal process was effective, we developed the filter and tested it in my hometown Kushtia. We then disseminated the filter to relatives and other people and published the results in an international peer review journals. After that we improved the technology to make it more efficient, known as the SONO filter.
Saima: How costly is the production of one unit?
Dr. Hussam: We knew we had to use available resources in Bangladesh. We found that iron turnings were readily available and we could process them to make them more stable and use them in the filter without significant cost. We purchase the iron turnings by the ton and labor is relatively inexpensive. For each filter you need two large plastic buckets, which are the most expensive item in Bangladesh. Overall, each filter costs approximately 25 dollars to manufacture.
Saima: Did you have funding to manufacture and disseminate the filters?
Dr. Hussam: In Bangladesh, the work was funded by my family. My father and my brother are both physicians and have their own clinical laboratories in which the experiments could be done. We used our own finances to do the initial experimentation. The filters are now manufactured by an NGO named Manob Sakti Unnayan Kendro (MSUK).
To date, they have manufactured 250,000 filters. The material that is used within the filter, the composite iron matrix (CIM), is under patent owned by GMU. GMU gave MSUK exclusive rights to manufacture and market the CIM for the filter in Bangladesh.
Saima: Do you know people who have arsenicosis (arsenic poisoning)?
Dr. Hussam: There are hundreds of people in Kushtia alone with arsenicosis. I have seen many of them at the clinical lab in Kushtia. We may have drank the arsenic contaminated water for 15-20 years but do not have any visible manifestations of arsenicosis. However, we believe that many of our relatives died from cancer after ingestion of the arsenic contaminated water. The types of cancer that they died of were unusual for that population.
Saima: What happens when the filters are spent?
Dr. Hussam: The material in the filter is guaranteed to work for 5 years and expected to work for 11 years. A very large number of the filters have been working since they were placed, which is 8 years now. The material will not be used up in less than 5 years. We have a process of buying the filter back and the consumer needs to pay a little more to get a new filter. We can recycle the iron or sell it to the metal industry.
Even if the consumer threw the filter out in the open, it will not contaminate the ground because the mechanism in the CIM mimics the natural arsenic trapping process in the soil. Most of our filters are still working so we have not had to recycle the filters in large quantities yet.
Saima: What do you hope to do with this project in the future?
Dr. Hussam: Our filter is the only arsenic removal filter made in Bangladesh. There are a few others made in Japan, Germany, and Canada but they are very expensive. We are the only producers of these economical filters in West Bengal, Nepal, and Bangladesh. We have sent some filters to Egypt to filter Nile water because this filter removes more than just arsenic. We have sent some more filters to the Marine Science Institute in North Caroline to study how effective it is with bacteria removal. This filter will remove some contaminants in river water, lake water and groundwater.
Several researchers around the world have requested materials from us to do testing. A group from Cameroon and another from Argentina have requested the technology from GMU to test it there. The filter is one of the best for the price. We have plans to develop a filter for household use that can be attached to a pipe. For the US, we would like to develop this filter to remove a maximum of 300 parts per billion (ppb). In Bangladesh, however, the filter has to remove 2,000 - 3,000 ppb.
Saima: Do you think that this filter could be used for hexavalent chromium removal as well?
Dr. Hussam: That is a good question. It has not yet been tested. However, the basic science research was done in the 1970s. At that time, zero-valent iron was used to remove chlorinated hydrocarbons, toxic organic compounds, and chromium. So there is evidence that it may be possible. We know that the filter can remove lead, cadmium, copper, and manganese. Nepal groundwater has a lot of lead that can be removed using this filter.
Saima: Do you think that your filter can fix Bangladesh’s arsenic problem?
Dr. Hussam: We are trying to develop more commercial filters to propagate the technology. Even 250,000 filters only cover 1% of the total need. We do not think we can meet the entire need unless we have a filter that is even more efficient than the current one. We are currently working on other methods and products so we hope to find a solution.