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Silver to solve urgent need for emergency water supplies

By Nicolette Smith - 25 Feb 2011 13:11:1 GMT
Silver to solve urgent need for emergency water supplies

Fancy a drink? If, like me, you've been glued to the television watching round-the-clock news footage of the earthquake which recently brought New Zealand to its architectural knees, you'll know that the people of Christchurch aren't over the worst yet.

Having access to clean drinking water is something which the western world generally takes for granted, and yet producing sanitized water in an emergency is one of the greatest problems faced by the civilized world in the aftermath of a large-scale environmental disaster.

When it comes to natural disasters, we tend to focus on the event itself rather than the aftermath. The media does enjoy a potential apocalypse, when in fact the aftermath can be equally as destructive.

With cataclysmic events such as the Haitian and Christchurch earthquakes and the New Orleans Hurricane Katrina saga, the lack of clean water is one of the biggest problems facing survivors. The fact of the matter is that we simply aren't prepared for the worst-case-scenario; maintaining a residential population in the event that our traditional systems and processes malfunction.

Contaminated drinking water can carry any number of diseases; Cholera (currently a problem in the Haitian refugee camps); Gastroenteritis (an inflammatory disorder of the stomach); Giardiasis (abdominal discomfort resulting from fecal hand to mouth contamination); and Microsporidiosis (a wasting disease attributable to numerous waterborne bacteria) amongst others.  While there are various chemical methods for the large-scale sanitization of water, the problem is the immediacy of the need in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

A new study spearheaded by Chemists at McGill University have made a discovery which may offer a simple solution; by using silver nanoparticles (tiny, ultrafine microcrystalline molecules) to filter water they have discovered a cheap, simple and portable water filtration system designed to provide an immediate source of clean water to those in need.

The research team used an absorbent porous paper filter coated with silver nanoparticles in a design originally used by ancient Greeks and Romans to preserve their clean water supply.  Prof. Derek Gray said of the findings: ''..though silver is used to get rid of bacteria in a variety of settings, from bandages to antibacterial socks, no one has used it systematically to clean water before.''

Prof. Gray went on to say that the silver nanoparticles were highly effective at killing bacteria, and consistently produced water of a quality deemed suitable for drinking by the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The team are now keen to take their laboratory findings and test them in a field situation; ''It works well in the lab,'' Gray explained, ''now we need to improve it and test it in the field.''