Water Purification System: It Would Be a Sin Not to Deploy It, Says O'Leary

June 7, 1996

By Jeffery Kahn, [email protected]


Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary and a small army of media came here this week to honor and recognize Berkeley Lab Discover Award winners Ashok Gadgil, Xiao-Dong Xiang, and Peter Schultz.

A noon press conference -- covered by nearly all the local television stations, CNN, and a host of newspapers -- focused on Gadgil's UV Waterworks, a simple and inexpensive way to purify water and prevent waterborne disease in the non-industrialized world.

Lab Director Charles Shank said that Gadgil's ultraviolet-based water purification system and Xiang and Schultz' combinatorial synthesis technique for making and testing new materials exemplify the range of research done here. Different as they are, Shank said, they share a vast potential to improve the world.

Worldwide, 400 children die every hour from waterborne diseases. Gadgil, who is from India and has had several cousins die from these diseases, worked after-hours creating a purification system that uses an off-the-shelf ultraviolet light to kill bacterial and viral contaminants. Running on a car battery if necessary, one unit can provide water for a village of 1,000 people, eliminating the threats of cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases. Each unit costs between $250 and $600.

"What we've done," said Gadgil, "is build a device that makes water purification so inexpensive that it's almost impossible not to use it."

O'Leary said Gadgil's UV Waterworks is a simple and powerful demonstration of the value of American science.

"This is an extraordinary piece of technology that is robust and inexpensive," she said. "It could save human lives at a cost of pennies. And yet," she said, there are no funds currently available to field test and refine the device.

"It would be a sin not to deploy this," said O'Leary. "Wouldn't it be extremely short-sighted, even ignorant, to prevent this laboratory from doing this kind of work? Yet Congress is threatening programs like this. Well, I am here to push back on the Congress, to say that it is necessary to invest in such programs, to invest in our future."

O'Leary said discussions are under way concerning a two-year field test in South Africa, where the device would be used under conditions that could lead to various improvements. She said that in July she hopes to be able to announce that some $500,000 will be available for these tests.

Ralph Cavanagh, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, also spoke during the press conference, delivering a ringing endorsement of the UV Waterworks and this Laboratory.

"There is nowhere on Earth that federal research dollars are spent as well as here," Cavanagh said. "This is a time when research designed solely to benefit the public is under attack. The benefits of such research are magnificently manifested by the UV Waterworks.

"Think of who will be the principal beneficiaries of this technology development effort," he said. "It will be the children of impoverished families in developing countries. That's not a very lucrative market niche. Lives will be saved and human misery alleviated. Without the effort of this Laboratory," he said, "this technology would not have been developed."