This Book Could Save Lives By Purifying Drinking Water

Sample page of the Drinkable Book. Brian Gartside.

Over 500,000 children die every year from unclean drinking water – that’s over 1,400 children a day according to WaterAid UK. And though access to clean drinking water is essential, 650 million people are currently living without it. To solve this issue, researchers have developed what they call the “Drinkable Book.” The book purifies drinking water and has the potential to revolutionize access to clean water.

The concept is quite simple. People tear out a page from the book, slide it into a filter box and pour water through it. Each page contains silver or copper nanoparticles that kill bacteria found in contaminated water. Each page could filter 99% of bacteria, which is comparable to tap water in the U.S., even in highly contaminated water sources where raw sewage has been dumped.

Sisters collecting untreated water from a dam. WaterAid/ Nyani Quarmyne.

“I started off with proof of concept experiments in the lab where it [the Drinkable Book] showed a lot of promise. Then I went on field studies, where people are drinking dirty water on a regular basis and getting sick from it,” Dr Theresa Dankovich, a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, tells IFLScience.

Dankovich trialed the Drinkable Book in South Africa, Ghana and Bangladesh and quickly realized the importance of finding a design that is culturally relevant to the communities who are in need of clean drinking water.

“One of the assumptions I made was that because most people use large buckets in Africa, people everywhere would use large buckets for water collection. But, that’s not true. The water vessels used in Bangladesh are a gourd-shaped aluminum container called a kolshi, so we had to tailor our designs to what people would use,” Dankovich explained.

“In the best-case scenario, we hope to develop something people like to use and use regularly. The goal is to reduce the number of water-borne illnesses around the world. There’s still a lot of work to be done before that happens,” Dankovich added.

The Drinkable Book not only purifies drinking water, but also contains instructions in each page to educate people about safe water habits. According to researchers, it only costs pennies to produce and one filter can purify up to 100 liters of water. Dankovich has presented her research at 250th national meeting of the American Chemical Society. Dankovich and her colleagues hope to undertake more trials to narrow down the different designs for the Drinkable Book and increase production.

Dankovich pours contaminated pond water into a funnel containing paper from the Drinkable Book. Ali Wilson.

Rémi Kaupp, urban sanitation specialist at WaterAid UK, tells IFLScience that while there’s no reason to doubt the science behind the Drinkable Book, the impact it can have in the field depends on whether it has a good supply chain.

“A good supply chain would need to be developed as in many rural areas it can be difficult to find the most basic of resources for good hygiene, such as sanitary pads. So, finding water filters in general could be quite hard, even if it’s fairly cheap, because we need suppliers willing to distribute it,” Kaupp says.

He explains that the Drinkable Book could be particularly useful in emergency situations, such as natural disasters, but in order to achieve the aim where people could turn on the taps without worrying about the quality of water, local governments would need to focus on improving the source of water to start with.

“At water aid, we started several decades ago as a technological-based organization. We’ve learnt a lot since then. Innovation has a big role to play in water sanitation. And while technology is needed, we need to do this through local governments and water companies to ensure that they maintain the quality of their water supply,” Kaupp explains.

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