The Story of Life through a Straw

by Angela Abaño, Mari Chiong, Spencer Galit, Ysa Gohh, Cody Ipapo, and Rajah Padaen

          This is a story of change, a story of science and innovation, of life, and of hope; and it all begins with a straw.

       Once upon a time, the Vestergaard Frandsen company, together with the Carter Foundation, focused on eradicating the Guinea worm in Africa; so they made a “simple cloth fiber” that would remove the eggs. Since they noticed that most of the people drank water in the field, at school, while traveling and not just at home, they invented a “mobile unit in the form of a drinking straw with the filter cloth inside.” When they distributed more than 20 million of these straw filters, “the company had the idea to further develop the straw into a filter that removes not only worm eggs but all pathogens, and the idea of LifeStraw was born” (Heierli 2008, p.80).

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          As its name implies, the LifeStraw resembles a straw, albeit much bigger. It retains a regular straw’s cylindrical shape but measures 9.25 inches long with an inch long circumference and is made out of durable plastic. For the sake of portability, a string connected to the LifeStraw allows users to wear it around their necks. To use the LifeStraw, users just drink water as they would with any regular straw and the device automatically purifies the liquid passing through (Barksdale and Kershner n.d.).

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          How does the LifeStraw achieve this instant purification? Previously, it used iodine to kill bacteria but the latest versions now filter water mechanically. Within its cylindrical shape, the LifeStraw uses the microscopic pores contained in hollow fibers to trap impurities such as dirt while allowing clean water to pass through, making it a microfiltration device. These fibers are capable of filtering 99.9999 percent of sediments, bacteria and parasites from water measuring 0.2 microns and bigger. However, people should not expect the LifeStraw to treat water laced with heavy chemicals or salt. After usage, air simply needs to be blown out to clear the filter. Remarkably, the device makes no use of any electricity or power throughout this entire process (Barksdale and Kershner n.d.).

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          In terms of usage, one LifeStraw unit is capable of purifying 1,000 liters of water in its lifespan. This means that people can drink 2.7 liters of water a day (which approximates the recommended daily intake for water) for a year before needing to replace their LifeStraws (Barksdale and Kershner n.d.).

       lifestraw-family-350While a normal LifeStraw unit is already useful, a larger unit called the Lifestraw Family was developed to purify greater amounts of water intended for several people at once. The LifeStraw Family can purify eighteen times the capacity of the original at 18,000 liters and can ideally service a family of five for three years. Despite being much bulkier with a blue bucket, prefilter, longer plastic tube and filter cartridge, it still makes use of the original technology, using a series of hollow fiber filters to purify water. These fibers have even smaller holes than the ones featured in the original, making it an ultrafiltration device capable of removing viruses the original cannot. Although its greater ability to purify water implies that it is harder to clean and maintain, the LifeStraw Family requires minimal wiping of its prefilter and releasing collected residue on a regular basis (Barksdale and Kershner n.d.).

    LifeStrawCommunityinuseimage   Following the personal LifeStraw and the family filter LifeStraw Family, an even larger-scale filtration system called LifeStraw Community has been developed. This filter is designed for the community, educational, and institutional settings. It uses the same filtration system as the LifeStraw and LifeStraw Family, and can filter 100,000 liters of water in its lifetime. It also has a built-in storage container for 25 liters as well as 4 taps to dispense water, making access to clean water convenient (CELF n.d.).

          The distribution of LifeStraws is executed through Vestergaard Frandsen company’s partnership with nonprofit agencies, faith-based agencies, government, corporations, Ministries of Health, and other aid agencies. In the year 2011, the company donated more than a million LifeStraw Family to Kenya and was able to make it 500lifestrawavailable to 4.5 million Kenyans through the help of its local Ministry of Health (Barksdale and Kershner n.d.). Several units were also given away after major natural disasters such as the Pakistani floods of 2011 and 2012, the Haitian earthquake of 2010, the Japanese earthquake of 2012. (Hult Social Entrepreneurship 2013).

The Spark for Change

          Because of the continuous depletion of drinkable fresh water, about 780 million people especially in poor and less developing countries are needing supplies of clean water as of 2012. Waterborne diseases also kill 3.4 million people a year, in which the majority of diseases are caused by fecal matter (Water.org n.d.). An additional 1.5 million deaths each year are due to diarrhea caused by drinking contaminated water. (Vestergaard Frandsen n.d.)

          Hence, the advent china_water_pollution_019of the LifeStraw and the various distribution projects related to it have dramatically reduced mortalities caused by the lack of safe drinking water, especially for women, children, and those with compromised immune systems who easily fall victim to water-related illnesses (Saatchi & Saatchi n.d.).

For the more than one billion people who lack access to safe drinking water, LifeStraw® could mean the difference between life and death (Saatchi & Saatchi n.d.).

       Indeed, the LifeStraw is an effective and extremely beneficial innovation, for it provides an answer to the needs of millions of people. Since it is a portable and point-of-use item, children who go to school, adults who go to work, and even travellers and hikers can be sure to have safe drinking water almost anywhere that there is water. This is especially relevant in developing countries where clean water is difficult to obtain. Moreolifestraw-hikingver, the fact that it does not use chemicals to filter ensures that the filtered water contains no additional chemicals or unnatural taste (unlike the first model of the LifeStraw that left iodine after filtering). As it also does not need electrical power, batteries, or replacement parts, the invention is surely energy-saving, environment-friendly, and efficiently easy to use.

“LifeStraw® is a wonderful, simple and elegant solution to a problem that kills millions of people, especially kids, every year. I hope it gets out into the world in huge numbers very fast.” —Saatchi & Saatchi Judge Peter Gabriel (qtd. in Saatchi & Saatchi n.d.)

What Lies Beyond

          The LifeStraw has changed quite a bit since its initial launch in 2005 in order to better address the problem of the lack of clean drinking water. One problem the first version of the LifeStraw encountered was that it took too long to filter large amounts of water because of the way its filter system worked. Water passed through a pre-filter, filter, iodine chamber, and activated carbon chamber. This made for a slow rate of filtration, and if sipping through a LifeStraw were your main means of drinking clean water, one would have to spend a lot of time sipping each day as opposed to drinking from a cup.

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          The LifeStraw is currently in its third version, and this iteration makes use of a hollow fiber membrane, which improves its rate of filtration opposed to the many-chambered version. It also removes any iodine taste the water might have due to the removal of the iodine chamber. The product line has also been expanded by its company, and now larger filter systems named the LifeStraw Family and the LifeStraw Community, as previously mentioned, can now conveniently store larger volumes of unfiltered water and dispense clean water on demand in homes, as well as schools.

        Furthermore, the LifeStraw can effectively filter out pathogens and other particulates through membrane size exclusion, but unfortunately it cannot purify polluted water of industrial wastes, nor can it reduce the salinity of salt water. The product works well in rural areas where bodies of freshwater tend to be unpolluted by things the LifeStraw cannot filter, but what about a more urban setting? Perhaps, with the continuing advancements in nanotechnology, the possibility of commercially available and more exclusive (in terms of filtration) filters is higher. Instead of simply a microfilter, the LifeStraw may evolve into a nanofilter that removes more things that the current LifeStraw cannot (i.e. industrial chemicals and salt).

What If?

         Philippines_flood_dThe Philippines is no stranger to flooding during the rainy season, and one of the major problems afflicted Filipinos have during a flood is, ironically, the lack of clean drinking water. This is why bottled water donations are a common sight in relief operations. Can LifeStraw technology help alleviate that? Can we drink the flood away? It is a possibility, but first we have to know what harmful things have to be filtered out of floodwater, and whether the LifeStraw is capable of dealing with them. We know that there are tons of pathogens in floodwater, which is why wading through it is a bad idea, but what about harmful chemicals? It isn’t far fetched if floodwater brings with it chemicals we aren’t supposed to consume from nearby polluted bodies of water. Further evaluation and testing is needed to determine whether or not the LifeStraw can be a part of the solution to this problem in our country.

The Bigger Picture

         Coastal pollutionLooking at the bigger picture, the LifeStraw may solve the problem of the lack of clean drinking water, but it does not solve the larger problem of water pollution. Seeing as the LifeStraw products have transformed from a personal straw (LifeStraw) to a family filtering system (LifeStraw Family) and even a community-oriented system (LifeStraw Community), this trend of growth may expand even further. Larger quantities of water are being filtered by these latter systems, making the possibility of filtering even bigger bodies of water grow closer and closer.

          Imagine the potential of using the LifeStraw’s filterwater-pollutioning method for sewage systems. Its capabilities of filtering E. coli and other bacteria in fecal matter and urine ensures safe disposal of sewage waste that will not contaminate our bodies of water. However, evaluation and comparison with the current sewage treatment system has to be done on many levels (economic, effectiveness, etc.) before the systems are changed. Since the LifeStraw filtration method is not everlasting and needs eventual replacement, perhaps it may serve as an additional process to the sewage system instead of a complete replacement.

          Ultimately, the LifeStraw along with other current water treatment systems show us that it is not too late to reverse water pollution. We are currently at the stage of purifying water at the point of drinking, thus allowing millions of people access to safe drinking water that they could not obtain otherwise, and henceforth improving their health lifestyles and preventing fatal waterborne diseases. Through science and effective innovation however, we may hope to completely undo the contamination that we have inflicted upon our bodies of water. Technology is constantly evolving, and this lets us hope to see the day that a complete reversal of pollution may take place.

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References

The photographs are linked to their respective sources. (Click the pictures.) Photos without direct links were made by the authors.

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