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Gil Friend: The LifeStraw
Gil Friend, 28 Aug 05

straw.jpgGil Friend is a systems ecologist and business strategist, and is the CEO of Natural Logic, an environmentally-focused strategy, design and management consultancy. He writes occasional essays on sustainable business for our Sustainability Sunday feature.

Invention of the century?

Granted, the century's still young, but this could be a big one.

The LifeStraw is revolutionary in its combination of simplicity and value. Régine gave us a bit of detail on it in May, but it's worth extended attention. Dave Pollard and GizMag point us in the right direction:

Pollard: Gizmag describes a new invention with no moving parts and using no electricity that could save tens of millions of lives per year, the lives of people who now die from preventable water-borne diseases that are caused by overcrowding and lack of sufficient money and infrastructure to treat water properly.

GizMag: The most prolific killer of human beings in developed countries is the automobile, followed by a host of diseases resulting mainly from an indulgent lifestyle. Millions of people perish every year because they simply don't have clean water to drink....The aptly-named LifeStraw... is a personal, low-cost water purification tool with a life time of 700 litres - approximately one year of water consumption for one person... that could become one of the greatest life-savers in history. It is a 25 cm long, 29 mm diameter, plastic pipe filter and purchased singly, costs around US2.00.

Got that folks? Clean water for a year for two bucks! Clean water for the four billion of us at the bottom of the pyramid for $8b a year. (Or just the billion or so of us without access to safe water supplies.) Peanuts, in the scheme of things. Less than 1% of the 2002 (pre-Iraq War) global military budget. (Other stats from our Sense of Proportion Department, courtesy the World Bank: Gross National Income, globally, 2002: $31.7 trillion US (31.5 x 10^12); high income counties, $25.6 T, middle income, $5.06 T, low income countries, $1.07 T) (See also Progress to the International Development Goals)

So: who's going to make it happen. Well, maybe all of us -- if we all start flooding all of our governments (elected representatives, agency heads, etc) with the GizMag posting, and ask them to allocate a pittance of our tax money to getting LifeStraw manufactured (with economies of scale that could bring the price down further?) and distributed world-wide.

Bonus: GizMag article also points to 'brief technical rundown' at MedGadget, 'the internet journal of emerging medical technologies.' The gist: 100 micron filter, 15 micro filter, iodine-impregnated beads, and activated carbon. The biggest parasites will be taken by the pre-filter, the weakest will be killed by the iodine, and the medium range parasites will be picked up by the active carbon. The main interest to everyone is the killing of bacteria, and here our laboratory reading tells us that we have a log. 7 to log 8 kill of most bacteria. This is better than tap water in many developed countries.

Perfect? I'm sure not. Issues with iodine (though OTOH there's nutritional iodine deficiency) and carbon, but certainly outweighed, at least in the short term, by knocking back death from water-borne diseases. Not helpful with Giardia, which is caused by an iodine-resistant organism with 5 micron spores. Challenges of manufacture, distribution, local production and end-of-life disposal, but no doubt solvable.

But on balance this rates a 'Wow.'

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Comments

More details (including preliminary test results) available at LifeStraw site.

The manufacturer's site also features PermaNet ("a ready-to-use mosquito bed Net treated with deltamethrin which lasts up to 20 washes") and ZeroFly (plastic sheeting for emergency situations which "contains insecticide and has, in laboratory as well as field trials, been proven effective against disease vectors such as malaria mosquitoes").


Posted by: Hassan Masum on 28 Aug 05

Its great to see a simple yet powerful new invention, which has the potential to provide clean water to millions if not billions around the world.

However, it will definitely not help save tens of millions of lives every year!

The estimates for deaths from "water issues are between 2-5 million people per year... look at World Health Organization data or for a great recap of water isses visit Pacific Institute.

http://www.pacinst.org/press_center the_worlds_water_2004-2005/Gleick-CHAPTER01.pdf


Posted by: Joe Deely on 29 Aug 05

Joe Deely, thank you for the citation and clarification about death rates. There is more about this topic here:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=9164317&dopt=Citation

(Note: this is a summary. The actual study is in The Lancet, which requires a subscription, I think.)

But let's not forget that direct mortality isn't the only thing worth considering. There's life expectancy, time spent ill, reduced childhood development, contribution to other causes of death such as pneumonia, and other factors.

So this simple invention might save - or vastly improve - tens of millions of lives a year.


Posted by: David Foley on 29 Aug 05

David,

Agreed... this has the potential to greatly improve the lives of millions of people.

I guess I just don't like it when arbitrary statistics are thrown around. You must understand the problem you are attempting to solve... and "bad statistics" just serve to muck things up. Even the word "overcrowding" in

"the lives of people who now die from preventable water-borne diseases that are caused by overcrowding and lack of sufficient money and infrastructure to treat water properly."

is problematic.

Access to clean water is much more prevalent in urban areas of the world versus rural areas, so "overcrowding" is not a cause...

see -
http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/monitoring/jmp04_4.pdf

"Ninety-two per cent of the urban population and 70 per cent of the rural population in developing countries use improved drinking water sources. That means that for every person without improved drinking water in urban centres, there are six people unserved in rural areas."



Posted by: Joe Deely on 29 Aug 05

This is a nice tool, but it won't be very effective if it isn't combined with an equally important and simple tool: soap.

You just need one disease vector to invade the hands of a child or the food it eats, and you won't stop the disease by drinking clean water afterwards. The only way to really prevent millions of deaths is to introduce the "Lifestraw", plus cheap soap.

There are countless epidemiological and hygiene studies out there showing the effectiveness of the simple technology of washing hands, so here's just one recent one:

New Study Demonstrates Simple Handwashing with Soap Can Save Children’s Lives

http://www.cdc.gov/od/oc/media/pressrel/r050714a.htm


Cheap soap could be manufactured easily by local communities from natural oils they grow themselves, provided they have the money for some extra chemicals. For every US$2 spent on the brilliant Lifestraw, someone should add US$2 for soap making programmes.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 30 Aug 05

So: who's going to make it happen. Well, maybe all of us -- if we all start flooding all of our governments (elected representatives, agency heads, etc) with the GizMag posting, and ask them to allocate a pittance of our tax money to getting LifeStraw manufactured (with economies of scale that could bring the price down further?) and distributed world-wide.

I'm simple, granted, but this gizmo is inexpensive - why wouldn'the end user pay for it themselves?

Cheap soap could be manufactured easily by local communities from natural oils they grow themselves, provided they have the money for some extra chemicals.

Question - cheap soap was made by poor people generations ago. What is keeping the communities you speak of from doing the same? I say in advance that all I know about soap making is what I see my wife doing in the kitchen with her soaps but .. I know my dirt-poor ancestors in Michigan made their own soap ...


Posted by: Brian on 31 Aug 05

Hi Brian, sure many of the people in question traditionally know how to make soap, but often they don't have the money to buy the ingredients.
And in urban environments, it is probably not available cheaply enough to the masses.
Moreover the study in the Lancet shows how many of the people in question did not use soap, it's an amazingly high number. Many must be taught the importance of using it.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 31 Aug 05

Cheap soap can be made with animal fat and wood ashes. In areas where wood is a scarce resourse this may make things difficult. Meat tends to be difficult to come by in really poor communities so getting the fat (usually by boiling the meat) can be difficult.

Part of the problem is that is people do not really understand the value of using soap they will not bother to make it and might not even use it if it is provided. Most people these days just don't know how to make it, I didn't learn until I took organic chemistry.


Posted by: Chris Berchem on 9 Sep 05



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