Although it may not have always been my favorite subject in school, I am a big fan of science. I’m especially fond of the kind of science that improves people’s lives. To show my appreciation, and to call out some good and amazing things that are happening in the world at this very moment, I’d like to dedicate my next few posts on this blog to profiling some of the innovations, technologies and research that are making the world a safer, healthier, or otherwise better place.
Today’s potentially world-changing innovation is the LifeStraw – a portable water filter that gives its owner easy access to safe drinking water. It’s basically a handheld device that a user can place into non-potable water, and by the time the water reaches the mouthpiece it’s been purified to US EPA standards using chemical-free, physical filtration. According to the website of Vestergaard Frandsen, the Swiss-based company behind the product, LifeStraw removes at least 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria, at least 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites, and reduces turbidity by filtering particles of approximately 0.2 microns. The site features photos of people putting the straw directly into murky, muddy water and drinking it. Amazing!
A product like LifeStraw could have an immense positive impact on health in the developing world. The UN estimates that 11 percent of the global population lacks access to clean drinking water. Certain regions are disproportionately affected. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, over 40 percent of the population does not have a clean water source. The UN also cites diarrhea as the leading cause of illness and death globally, with 88 percent of those deaths resulting from a lack of access to sanitation and water for hygiene as well as unsafe drinking water.
In 2011, Vestergaard Frandsen donated 900,000 LifeStraws to Western Province, Kenya, where 90 percent of people lack access to safe water. Through this “Carbon for Water” program, funded by carbon offsets, more than four million people there will now have access to clean, safe water for ten years. This is not a charity effort, however. Vestergaard Frandsen refers to its business model as “Humanitarian Entrepreneurship” with a “profit for purpose” approach. They create life-saving products for use in developing nations or in crises, but a product like the LifeStraw remains out of financial reach for those most in need of it. Here in the US, you can buy a LifeStraw at a camping supply store for about $20. The Carbon for Water program, which is carried out in partnership with the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, cost an estimated USD $30 million. The funding model, based on selling carbon credits to companies in developed countries, is estimated to produce over two million tons of carbon emission reductions each year, while recouping Vestergaard Frandsen’s investment and sustaining the program. The campaign boasts this program as the first to link low-carbon development with health outcomes, and touts its impact on four of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals – reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating disease, and ensuring environmental sustainability. Go, science!