Sensors Address Crises Like Flint, Michigan Water and Ebola

The following opinion piece calls attention to the need for resources to make tools to alert citizens to public health threats as they happen. Appearing in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 20, 2016, Distinguished Professor Junhong Chen and David Garman, Dean of the School of Freshwater Sciences, discuss how water sensors could have alerted citizens of Flint, MI to harmful lead levels. These same sensors being developed at UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science are being adapted by Dr. Chen after being commissioned by the Center for Disease Control to help detect Ebola.

As citizens in Flint, Mich., wait for the government to fix the problems that led to lead contamination in their drinking water, they and many others doubtless wonder how communities can protect themselves in the future.

water-sensors-call-out-1.fwCentralized water systems put control of water treatment and testing in the hands of skilled professionals using sophisticated equipment. But the crisis in Flint has shown that those systems alone are not enough to safeguard drinking water. One improvement would be installation of sensors that provide immediate and unambiguous answers about water purity.

Many Flint residents knew they had lead in their tap water last year, but they didn’t know how much. Sensor technology being developed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee immediately indicates the amount present, whether it’s only 1 part per billion or far above the limit of 15 parts per billion set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Many Flint residents knew they had lead in their tap water last year, but they didn’t know how much. UWM’s sensor technology immediately indicates the amount present. Credit: Associated Press

Many Flint residents knew they had lead in their tap water last year, but they didn’t know how much. UWM’s sensor technology immediately indicates the amount present. Credit: Associated Press

That type of technology could have alerted Flint residents the minute contamination occurred, and it can help protect the millions of Americans who still get their water from lead pipes. In Flint, contamination occurred when corroded pipes leached lead into tap water.

That has led to calls to replace the nation’s aging infrastructure — a costly and disruptive proposition. Total replacement is unnecessary if we can use sensors to identify problem spots and target upgrades.

A number of research teams across the country are already working on this technology, which is encouraging. Those teams include scientists and engineers at UW-Milwaukee, where we are fortunate to have partners in private industry who can help bring our system to market.

water-sensors-call-out-2.fwOur researchers use nanomaterials to produce a low-cost and highly sensitive mechanism to detect heavy metals in water with selectivity even at very low concentrations.

The technology does not require special training to use. People will be able to test their tap water the same way diabetics use glucose monitors to check their blood sugar levels in real time.

Now we are in the process of testing our sensors with tap water samples taken from Flint in a RAPID study funded by the National Science Foundation.

We’ve developed two methods of detection: a hand-held device for single-use testing in the field or in residential homes, and a network of tiny sensors that can be immersed in liquid for continuous monitoring.

Along with the potential to monitor water quality in municipal water systems, the technology provides a fast, affordable alternative to the current, days-long process for testing private wells.

UW-Milwaukee faculty worked with water business partners in a National Science Foundation-backed research consortium to identify technologies with the strongest commercial appeal, and then build prototypes.

Such programs that link academic research with industry needs can greatly speed the process of turning scientific discoveries into widely available products, putting the solutions in the hands of citizens.

The individual sensors are very small — hundreds of them occupy a 4-inch-wide silicon wafer. They can be integrated at various locations into existing pipes and equipment to sound the alarm wherever and whenever contamination occurs.

With federal and state funding available to replace Flint’s corroded pipes, an opportunity exists for the city to become the first in the nation to take advantage of this new water-monitoring capability.

Eventually, the same kind of technology could be used to integrate water and energy systems, creating “smart” conservation systems.

But more resources are needed to expedite technologies such as ours to the market. And, once it’s available, the technology should be adopted as part of standard monitoring procedures to better assess public health and exposures to contaminants.

But Americans’ health and well-being is too important to get lost in the finger pointing. Instead, we should focus our attention and resources, both public and private, on making tools that can alert administrators and citizens in a community to health threats as they happen.