IdeaConnection Solvers Provide Solutions to Arsenic Contamination of Groundwater

“Ideas that could potentially be groundbreaking.” Steve Chambreau, Co-founder of Chemists Without Borders
By Paul Arnold
The World Health Organization (WHO) has described arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh as the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history”.

Half of the country’s Bangladeshis, up to 77 million people have been exposed to the toxic element, known for causing strokes, cancer, heart disease and long term problems with the lungs, kidney and liver.

To help find solutions, Chemists Without Borders, an organization focused on solving humanitarian problems, teamed up with IdeaConnection. Solvers worked for free and developed pioneering concepts for testing and treating arsenic contaminated water and a filter for removing the dangerous chemical.

In this interview, Steve Chambreau, Co-founder of Chemists Without Borders talks about the vital work of his organization and how the skills and expertise of IdeaConnection’’s solver community will make a difference to millions of lives.

Can we start by talking about some of the solutions you received from IdeaConnection’s solvers?

One of the successful solutions was for an arsenic removal technology that can be duplicated in a cottage industry. For example, a technology that could be built and sold locally. This is neat, because not only is it a way to remove arsenic from the drinking water, but manufacturing locally means there’s no need to transport starting materials from the United States or from some other country.

People could be engaged to sell these to their neighbors and their local communities and this would have a positive economic impact. Not only will it help the environment and help with health issues, but it will also help economically.

We also received good ideas for the Arsenic Penny-per-Test challenge. We were seeking a simple test for anyone to use, something like a dipstick that you can put in the water, wait for a period of time and the color will indicate the concentration of arsenic exposure.

There are a number of tests already being used in Bangladesh, what are their drawbacks? Why are solutions needed?

Well, they are kind of complicated and really easy to do incorrectly. They are also somewhat expensive. If we reuse some of the equipment and get the chemical refills we can get the price down to less than a dollar a test, maybe even 50 cents or ten cents a test. We want to get cheaper than that.

How did IdeaConnection’s solvers help?

There were some really nice ideas that could potentially be groundbreaking in the sense that they use microbial reagents. So you have a microbe that is sensitive to arsenic or arsine and it changes color depending on the concentration of the arsenic in the water.

IdeaConnection solvers also came up with some technologies already on the market that we were unaware of. This was nice to see. A lot of them are based on an old patent that turns a mercury compound orange when it is exposed to arsine gas.

What else impressed you about the solutions you received from IdeaConnection?

One of the neat concepts is for a smartphone app that can map out where water is contaminated and how it’s contaminated. The software program will also put users in touch with local organizations that can provide various water treatment solutions. This could be used anywhere in the world.

Another idea is to do with plastic grain bags that UNICEF and the Red Cross provide to an area. These can be recycled and repurposed. If you seal them with a plastic welding machine, put in a tube and attach a filter, you can use them for filtering water. This is a great idea because of the economics and the materials may be available in high quantities. It also seems like a pretty simple thing to do.

So you have these great ideas from the solver community, what happens now?

The proposals we received are really the first step. We now need to work with the solvers and get some objective scientists to do feasibility studies. In fact an IdeaConnection Project Coordinator is taking on feasibility and social impact vs cost studies that will be performed next. We are really pleased with the work IdeaConnection has done and we look forward to moving ahead with these solutions.

What impact do you think these solutions will have?

These solutions have the potential to provide affordable clean drinking water to thousands of people in developing countries or after a natural disaster, and could save many lives.

What would be the impact of not having the challenges solved?

The impact of not having these challenges solved is that the situation will only get worse, as contaminated water supplies are expected to only multiply in the future: "MIT researchers find that by 2050 more than half the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas and about a billion or more will not have sufficient water resources."

What do you think is the potential of open innovation to stop this humanitarian disaster in Bangladesh?

One of our mottos at Chemists Without Borders is that the power is in the network. Bebo Gerber the other co-founder of the organization really believes that there is this huge network of chemists out there as well as the people that these chemists know.

For example, I think the American Chemical Society has 160,000 members. If we can tap into that circle of people and the people they know and the people they know as well, we can reach a significant amount of solvers to find the expertise we’re looking for in a given situation.

We’re actually working on implementing something like this at Chemists Without Borders. So, if you have somebody who’s in the field in South Africa or India or some place and who has a smartphone they can call up and perhaps we can provide a solution for their problems. Crowdsourcing has a lot of potential.

Let’s talk a little about Chemists Without Borders and why you are focusing a lot of attention on Bangladesh.

I began looking at arsenic in Bangladesh about six years ago when I read an article in the weekly magazine of the American Chemical Society.

Then there was the Grainger Challenge, a million dollar prize for the best solution for removing arsenic. The person who won that was Abul Hassam at George Mason University for an arsenic remediation technology called the SONO filter. We’ve been looking at ways we can improve upon the SONO filter or improve on its distribution and on the education of communities. Our long-term goal is to ensure that everyone has access to clean water, but we figured we had to start somewhere.

What are some of the things you are trying to do?

We are taking a number of approaches. One of the approaches right now is we’re looking at trying to provide a laboratory demonstration or a school lesson plan for high school students in Bangladesh. We can give them a test kit and they can test the water coming directly out of the well, then they can run it through the SONO filter and test the water afterwards and actually see the difference.

Part of what we’re doing is targeting education and the younger generation. Students have their smartphones and they’re on Facebook and Twitter and all these various social media applications – so they’re very open to new technologies. If we can show them how effective the filter is, they’ll be willing and able to use them.

If this is if successful, UNICEF have said they’ll work with us to scale it up to a regional or national level and maybe even to take it to other countries.


IdeaConnection’s problem solvers worked for a period of three months developing original solutions for three critical challenges - the Arsenic Penny-per-Test Challenge, the Arsenic Removal Water Filter Challenge and the Contaminated Water Test "Tool Kit" Challenge. Implementation of these ideas will help alleviate suffering in one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries.

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