GMU Teacher's Ingenuity Nets $1 Million Prize

Abul Hussam will receive $1 million for developing a system to filter arsenic out of well water.
Abul Hussam will receive $1 million for developing a system to filter arsenic out of well water. (Courtesy Abul Hussam - Courtesy Abul Hussam)

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007

A George Mason University chemistry professor has won a $1 million engineering prize for developing a simple and inexpensive means of filtering arsenic from well water, an advance that is already preventing serious health problems in hundreds of thousands of people in his native Bangladesh and could help millions of others around the world.

The 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability, administered by the National Academy of Engineering, will go to Abul Hussam of Centreville, academy officials announced yesterday.

Hussam came to the United States in 1978 as a college teaching assistant. He earned his citizenship, received a doctorate in analytical chemistry and then devoted much of his career to finding a simple solution to a massive problem inadvertently caused by international aid agencies.

For decades, institutions had funded a huge campaign to dig simple wells in Eastern India and Bangladesh, bringing fresh groundwater to millions of subsistence farmers and others who had been drinking from ponds and mudholes that teemed with disease-causing bacteria and viruses.

What those agencies did not know was that groundwater in that region has some of the world's highest naturally occurring concentrations of arsenic, a potent poison. So although the new wells produced a steep decline in infectious diseases, they also gave rise to an epidemic of arsenic-induced skin ailments and, over time, fatal cancers of the lungs, bladder and kidneys.

"I myself and all my brothers were drinking this water," said Hussam, whose family had two of the now infamous shallow "tube wells" in the agricultural district of Kushtia, where he grew up -- one in the kitchen and the other in the yard, both operated by hand pumps.

His family members remained healthy, Hussam said, perhaps because they had a nutritious diet, which can help stem the ill effects that typically accumulate over a decade or more of arsenic ingestion. But when the problem gained wide recognition in the 1990s, he decided to attack it with his knowledge of chemistry.

The first challenge, Hussam said, was to figure out how to get accurate measurements of arsenic in water, a technically difficult task. His success in doing so brought louder calls for help.

"People said, 'Yes, but give us a solution! What is the solution?' " Hussam recalled.

That led to more years of work and the testing of hundreds of prototype filtration systems. The first consisted of three perforated plastic buckets stacked atop one another, containing layers of sand, charcoal and other absorbent substances.

His final creation -- an easy-to-make, maintenance-free, two-tiered system that uses sand, charcoal, bits of brick and shards of a widely available kind of cast iron -- removes virtually every trace of arsenic from well water. It wowed an independent panel of engineering academy judges who, under the rules of the prize, were looking for an affordable, reliable, socially acceptable and environmentally friendly solution to the arsenic problem that did not require electricity.

Prize rules also required that the product be proven in field conditions, not just in a lab. Some of the filters have been used in Bangladesh for five years now, Hussam said, and they have neither clogged nor lost their cleansing ability.

Each filter contains 20 pounds of porous iron, which forms a strong chemical bond with arsenic and is key to the system's success. Even if the resulting, coffee-ground-like substance is eventually dumped on the ground, he said, the arsenic will not be released as long as there is oxygen around.

Allan Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said arsenic poisoning is a "public health emergency" affecting millions of people around the world, including in South America and the Southwestern United States. Part of the difficulty has been convincing people that their seemingly pristine water is toxic.

"You can't see it or taste or smell it," Smith said. "The idea that crystal-clear drinking water would end up causing lung disease in 20 or 30 years is a little weird. It's unbelievable to people."

The filtration systems are being assembled at the rate of about 200 a week in Kushtia for $35 to $40 each, Hussam said. More than 30,000 have been distributed, bringing clean water to about 400,000 people. About 1,000 have been distributed to elementary schools in Bangladesh.

Hussam said he will use 70 percent of his winnings to distribute his SONO filters to needy communities with the help of nongovernmental organizations, including one he created with his brother, a doctor in Bangladesh. He said 25 percent will go toward further research and development, and 5 percent will be donated to GMU.

The 2007 sustainability prize is the first in a series to be funded by the Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest, Ill., created in 1949 by an electrical engineer. A panel of experts decided two years ago that the first contest would be focused on the arsenic problem. In addition to Hussam, two other winners will be awarded prizes of $200,000 and $100,000. The awards will be presented Feb. 20 at Union Station in Washington.

The topic of the foundation's next challenge contest has not been announced.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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