SNOHOMISH – The recipe is deceptively simple: Add a little chlorine and a few drops of ferric chloride into a bucket of water, then stir.
Three local water treatment professionals hope this mixture is a potentially world-changing solution to the widespread problem of the arsenic-tainted drinking water that is a problem from Snohomish County to Asia.
If their answer is judged the best in a national scientific competition, their technique could be used halfway around the globe someday. And, the team could win up to $1 million.
Jim Repp stood outside his log cabin home outside Snohomish and demonstrated the method he has perfected with Carl Garrison and Erika Peterson.
Michael V. Martina / The Herald
Michael V. Martina / The Herald
The arsenic in the water is invisible. But when Repp adds the two chemicals from separate eye droppers, then stirs, clumps begin to form in the rusty-tinged water. That’s the arsenic binding to the ferric chloride, which is an iron-based salt.
“You can see it settling within an hour,” said Repp, who owns Meadow Lake Water Treatment and boasts a background in botany. “You leave it sit for a day, and the water clears right up.”
Then, with the arsenic stuck in the clumps, which fall to the bottom of the bucket, the water’s safe to drink. It can be further filtered through a simple cloth. In this case, the engineers have been trying out shop towels bought at Costco, or an old Shawn Kemp T-shirt.
Starting with water containing a few hundred parts per billion of arsenic, the water treated in the bucket ends up with 15 to 20 parts per billion, according to their tests.
When filtered through cloth or other material, the arsenic is reduced below even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 10 parts per billion, Repp said.
If this seems a like a low-tech solution, that’s the point. The challenge put before Garrison, Peterson and Repp was to come up with something simple and cheap that could be used in relatively poor nations such as Argentina and Vietnam.
In those places, they said, being able to treat even small amounts of drinking water would be useful. And it could cost very little per year – maybe under $10 for each household.
“This is appropriate technology for the situation,” Peterson said.
Dealing with naturally occurring arsenic in water isn’t just an idle experiment. The substance shows up in wells around Snohomish County. Here, however, remedying the problem usually involves installing expensive pump and filtration systems that provide large amounts of safe water for households or businesses.
High levels of arsenic in water are associated with several forms of cancer, as well as nervous system and cardiovascular problems.
In 2002, after the Snohomish Health District’s board adopted more restrictive arsenic standards for drinking water wells, Garrison got busier. The owner of Burlington-based Garrison Engineering was in demand by homeowners who needed engineer-designed wells and filtration systems for their new wells.
Since then, his firm has worked on designs for more than 200 wells in the county, he estimated.
Peterson, like her boss at Garrison Engineering, is a mechanical engineer. But the 24-year-old graduate of Messiah College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania, said her engineering education came with a sense of mission to help improve the world. Then she saw the Grainger Challenge Prize mentioned in a newspaper story.
The Grainger Challenge, administered by the National Academy of Engineering, is an attempt to spur solutions to the worldwide problem. The best practical device or method submitted by an American-based team wins $1 million.
“I figured it was a great fit. We do arsenic removal anyhow, so why not do the challenge,” Peterson said.
Garrison admitted it took some convincing, since entering the competition would take time and money. He and Peterson talked about it with Repp, who sometimes works with Garrison Engineering on well projects.
While ferric chloride’s use for treating water isn’t new, Garrison and Repp have been particularly adept at using it to treat wells, they said.
“The technology is widely known. But I think we were the first in the state to use ferric chloride commercially,” Garrison said.
The three don’t know exactly whom they are competing against in the Grainger Challenge. Jack Fritz, senior program officer with the National Academy of Engineering said more than 70 teams submitted proposals.
“It ranged from high school submittals up to those by huge publicly held companies,” Fritz said.
After a few proposals were eliminated immediately for not being complete or serious. The academy is winnowing down the remaining proposals to less than 20 finalists, so the local team may find out within a week or two whether their idea will advance. The big winners will be announced in 2007.
Peterson said learning about the Third World problem of arsenic-tainted drinking water, which affects tens of millions in Bangladesh alone, has been enlightening.
“Whatever happens, regardless – win, lose or draw – we’ve had this experience,” she said. “Awareness and education are half the battle.”
“At least half,” Repp added.
The team said they’ve talked about staying in the effort to improve drinking water around the globe even if they don’t win the big prize.
If they do win, they already have pledged to donate $100,000 of the prize and try to raise matching grants through their local Rotary Club to spread their water treatment system to other countries.
Despite Garrison’s reluctance initially, he’s now hoping their method is chosen to help change the world, a bucket of water at a time.
“It’s pie in the sky to think we’ll win a million bucks,” Garrison said, then paused. “But we think we have a really competitive idea.”
Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.