As America finds itself engrossed with the Flint, Michigan water crisis — as that city’s residents grapple with the prospect of their children facing years of consequences due to lead poisoning — is there hope of a scientific breakthrough on the horizon? A Swiss scientist claims to have developed a solution to cleaning contaminated water.
This past week, Raffaele Mezzenga of ETH Zurich, a Swiss university, published the results of a potentially groundbreaking water filtration project involving the cleaning of lead and other pollutants. His article, published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, is titled “Amyloid–carbon hybrid membranes for universal water purification.”
As NBC News reports, Mezzenga’s simple prototype “is a paper-like membrane, packed with carbon and processed milk proteins, that grabs heavy metals, radioactive waste and other industrial byproducts as polluted water passes through.”
“Industrial development, energy production and mining have led to dramatically increased levels of environmental pollutants such as heavy metal ions, metal cyanides and nuclear waste. Current technologies for purifying contaminated waters are typically expensive and ion specific, and there is therefore a significant need for new approaches,” Mezzenga wrote. The scientist says that 1 kg of the prototype membrane, which could purify more than a person’s lifetime water needs, costs $100 to manufacture and could be inexpensive and accessible to just about anyone.
The question, however, is whether the experiment can be implemented in the real world and on a commercially sustainable scale for homes and waste-water facilities.
This news comes at the height of the Flint water crisis, on the heels of the most recent news concerning the toxicity of the local water. As the Detroit Free Press reported, last Friday evening city, state and federal officials urged Flint residents to have their tap water tested for lead, after finding water samples so toxic that the water filters distributed to residents cannot treat them. While those filters handed out to Flint residents can treat water with up to 150 parts per billion of lead, 26 of over 4,000 recent samples have yielded levels ranging from 153 to over 4,000 parts per billion. To put this in perspective, while no level of lead is considered safe, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established a lead rate cutoff of 15 parts per billion. When lead levels exceed this number, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends action to minimize exposure to lead poisoning.
In addition to lead poisoning, Flint residents are currently exposed to Legionnaires’ disease, E. coli and hazardous chemicals. Given the gravity of the situation, the lack of options and the slow response from officials in dealing with the crisis, some people have to flee their homes in this already economically depressed town, according to Yahoo News, in which only one grocery store remains. According to federal officials, pregnant women and children younger than 6 should drink bottled water only, at least until testing on the homes with elevated lead levels has been completed.
“Understandably, residents here are scared,” Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said at a news conference. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Snyder said in a press release Friday night that all Flint residents should have the water in their homes tested as soon as possible. This comes as critics of the governor suggest that the testing is his responsibility.
“Please make it a priority for your family and encourage your friends and neighbors to obtain testing kits as well,” Snyder said. “The kits are available free of charge at the water resource sites within Flint fire stations.”
Meanwhile, calls continue for Snyder’s resignation and arrest.
“People want to have me shot. Well, that’s true. So again, that doesn’t help solve the problem,” Snyder recently said, according to WLIX.