Delaware prof looks to raincoat material to keep drinking water safe

    A million and a half children die of diarrhea and related diseases each year around the world, largely due to contaminated drinking water. A University of Delaware professor has won funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to test whether GORE-TEX-like materials could help mitigate the problem.

    Engineering professor Steve Dentel has a hypothesis. He thinks lining latrine pits with breathable, waterproof material will do two things. First, it will prevent pathogens from seeping out of waste and working their way into streams and wells, he said. Second, unlike traditional plastic, it will allow waste to dry out so it is less of a breeding ground for bacteria.

    Dentel said he was thrilled to get funding for a relatively simple proposal, which can be the most effective in developing areas.

    “University research tries to be very high tech. And to do research that will also make a difference in underdeveloped parts of the world is something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Dentel said. “It’s much more difficult to get funding to do that, so I am really happy about this.”

    In preliminary lab tests, Dentel found samples of wastewater sludge stored in the thumb of a GORE-TEX glove lost half of its moisture in a day, compared with a traditional plastic glove that held in all that moisture. He said the water that escaped was as pure as distilled water.

    Stan Laskowski, president of the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, said the idea sounds promising. Disease caused by unsafe drinking water kills more kids worldwide than malaria and tuberculosis combined, he said, but doesn’t get much attention.

    “I think this is great, if he can prove that this really works,” Laskowski said. “It’ll be very helpful on the global scene and it could be a real breakthrough, so I’m encouraged by it.”

    Dentel was granted $100,000 from the Gates foundation for lab work over the next year. He could win up to a million more to do field work later.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal