Lucan students water test for Africa

An estimated 1.5 million children globally die each year from preventable diseases caused by drinking dirty water, according to UNICEF, the world’s leading children’s support agency. It is shameful that rich nations do not do more to prevent such deaths.

Great credit is due, therefore, to three young Lucan scientists, and volunteers with Self Help Africa, that are not happy to sit back and do nothing to help address this problem. Rachael O’Neill, Thomas Butler and Sarah Vu, of Lucan Community College investigated a simple-to-use test that would indicate whether water in a tank was safe to drink or not, for their 2010 BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibit.

The project goal was entitled: “To determine the levels of bacteria in rain water collected for drinking in Africa.” For it they won a Highly Commended prize in the Biological and Ecological Category, but the real prize would be to come up with a real test that could be used in Africa, that would potential save people’s lives.

The idea was to link up with Self Help Africa, a charity organisation that seeks to assess what people need on the ground, and to work with them on a grass roots level – rather than simply supplying various forms of aid. The Lucan students are all volunteers and linked their BT project with a Self Help project to provide clean water for Gilgil, a town of about 20,000 people located in the Kenyan Rift Valley Province.

Rachael O’Neill explained that Self Help had provided a 10,000 litre water tank for Gilgil, but people there still faced water problems in terms of contamination.

“It is very simple, the water hits off the roof and goes into the gutter and is fed by a pipe into the tank. The problem comes when the water is sitting there for months and months. There are two rainy seasons in Kenya, one around Easter and one in September. The water is collected and has to last six months.”

“The temperature will be an average of 26 or 27C. With that heat and the water sitting there for months there is an increase in bacteria – cholera, dysentery and typhoid. They are caused by faecal matter. It is kinda cruel, because these diseases – you know when you have them you can cure them almost by just drinking water – by hydrating yourself. But, if you have dirty water, you are just going to get sicker and sicker.”

The Lucan students wanted to help the people of Gilgil by trying to come up with a simple test to see whether the water in their tank is safe to drink, or not. They came up with a test using limestone, which was clever, as there is plenty of limestone in and around the town and it can be accessed very cheaply and easily. Limestone is a test for carbon dioxide (CO2 ) as the students learned from their science classes. A test for carbon dioxide is, in turn, a test for bacteria, as bacteria, like humans, emit CO2 during respiration. The more g CO2 given off the more bacteria are present. It’s that simple.

“There is no money,” Rachael said explaining the situation the Gilgil people are facing “and the nearest water system is 10 kilometres away”. Men travel to get the water, she explained, which is odd, as it is normally the woman’s job to get water. But, it is considered dangerous for a woman to travel that distance, so the men do it. Then even after travelling 10km to get water there is no guarantee that the clean water will be available. “We got a statistic,” said Rachael, “which said that at any one time 40 per cent of the water wells in Africa aren’t working.”

The students’ next move is to get in touch with researchers in Irish universities that can help them to come up with a test that is capable of providing a precise reading that will indicate when exactly the water supply has become unsafe for drinking.

First published in Science Spin, Issue 42, September-October 2010