Advancements in Water Purification Technology: How Straws Can Save Lives

az1Water is an essential of life that many of us take for granted. In industrialized countries, we’ve become accustomed to a seemingly endless flow of pure, uncontaminated water from the tap at the turn of a wrist. In our society, access to an unlimited amount of clean water is considered the norm, and as a result we often waste it. For many people in the world, water is a precious resource that is not only scarce, but often patently unsafe. According to United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), 2.5 billion people in the world live without access to clean water and up to 8 million people die each year due to water-related illness. Waterborne diseases are currently the second leading cause of death in children under 5 years of age [1]. In response to these statistics various organizations have begun to provide free water sanitation products in underdeveloped areas where these diseases are most prevalent.

There are many products in development, but some of the most common include ceramic filters, straws, and a chemical-containing pouch called the Pur packet. Each of these inventions use different methods to sanitize the water for human consumption. Pur packets contain water-purifying chemicals, the most important being a chlorine compound similar to that used in swimming pool water. The packet is dumped into a bucket of contaminated water and stirred until substances can be seen settling on the bottom of the container. The water is then filtered by pouring it through a clean cloth to separate out the contaminants. The Pur packet is portable and cost efficient. It can be distributed to households in small, 4 gram packets that cost 10 cents and can purify up to 10 liters of water [2]. For even less, individuals can purchase a ceramic filter composed of clay, sawdust, and silver. These filters last for five years and cost between $0.25-$2.50, making them the cheapest method of water filtration in terms of cost per liter of water filtered [3]. Furthermore, ceramic filter factories create jobs for local people, stimulating their economy [4].

One particularly successful invention has been the Lifestraw, a water filtration system created and distributed by Vestergaard, a company that helps to support people in vulnerable situations, particularly in developing countries. The company has developed a variety of products, but the water straw is its most well-known invention, earning the title of “Best Invention of the Year” from Time magazine in 2005. The water straw was initially developed to battle Guinea worm disease after its inventor, Torben Vestergaard Frandsen, visited Africa while doing relief work [5].

The genius of this particular invention is that the straws are designed to hang around the neck for individual use, filtering water as people drink through it. The two components are a membrane and charcoal filter, which are separated into different compartments [3]. The end containing the membrane filter is placed into the water and the water must be sucked upwards through the straw to be purified. The membrane filters are made up of hollow fibers with small pores that effectively filter out any large contaminants, such as bacteria, sand, molds, and large viruses [6]. Then, the water moves through a filter of activated charcoal, which traps carbon-based contaminants and other chemicals such as chlorine [7]. Nonprofit organizations distribute the straws, enabling people to drink from any water source without worrying about consuming contaminants.

The Lifestraw has had significant success in various third world countries, one prominent example being Kenya. Lifestraws were distributed in Kenya for two reasons: Kenya is ranked within the top ten worst countries for the availability of clean water, and only 37% of their schools have access to clean water within 200 meters of the facility [8]. Overcrowding issues only add to the problem, creating pollution issues that may contaminate water [9].

The water straw has been successful in Kenya for several reasons. First, it is relatively cheap and portable, making it easy to replace and carry with you at all times. It is also a more efficient option than building wells, since half of the wells in developing countries become dysfunctional after a few years due to lack of maintenance and resources [4]. The Kenyan Red Cross has delivered water straws to over a million households, which in one sample appears to have decreased the diarrheal rate by one and a half percent [5]. Since distribution, the death rate in Kenya has decreased for the first time since 1984, and has continued to decrease ever since [10]. Lifestraw also distributes to most regions that have experienced a water-related disaster since 2005. This includes the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Thailand floods, and other countries in need, like Pakistan, and various regions of Africa [11].

Despite these developments, there is still much to be done. The success of purification and filtration inventions has helped, but 3.4 million people continue to die from water contamination related diseases every year [12]. Unfortunately, there is still low awareness, which could be remedied with informational classes, proper sanitation, and safety education regarding sharing amongst village members in at-risk communities. In order to effectively implement these methods, more funding is necessary, along with an increased number of volunteers and educators. Widespread distribution of filtration systems, along with increased participation to spread awareness could help save lives. To aid in this effort, students can begin to conserve the amount of clean water they use. Learning to appreciate what you have is the first step in helping fight water contamination problems, and making efforts to raise awareness of water contamination issues can make a huge difference for the people involved.


[1] “Water & Sanitation.” UNICEF: United States Fund. UNICEF, n.d. Web. 16 July 2014. <>.

[2] “Accessing Clean Water for Developing Nations.” Engineering Trends and Issues. University of Pittsburgh, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014. <>.

[3,] Brown, Joe, and Mark D. Sobsey. Use of Ceramic Water Filters in Cambodia. Rep. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Water and Sanitation Program, Cambodia Country Office, 2007. Print.

[4] The Balanced EquationYouTube. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 July 2014. <>.

[5] “About.” Lifestraw by Vestergaard. Vestergaard, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014. <>.

[6] Kelly, Phil. “Water Purification in the Backcountry.” RECM 123: Introducton to Outdoor Recreation. Brigham Young University, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014. <>.

[7] “What Is Activated Charcoal and Why Is It Used in Filters?” HowStuffWorks. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2014. <>.

[8] “The Cause.” Lifestraw by Vestergaard. Vestergaard, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014. <>.

[9] Snyder, Shannyn. “Water In Crisis – Spotlight Kenya.” The Water Project. The Water Project, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014. <>.

[10] “Death Rate, Crude (per 1,000 People).” The World Bank. The World Bank Group, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014. <>.

[11] “LifeStraw Personal Water Filter.” Eartheasy: Solutions for Sustainable Living. Eartheasy, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014. <>.

[12] “Millions Lack Safe Water.” Water. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2014. <>.

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[1] Retrieved September 7, 2014 from: Wikipedia.


Angela Zhang is a senior at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, California. Her primary interests math and science. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.