Sobsey’s portable water-testing device put to use in Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan

Nov. 25, 2013

A start-up company co-founded by a distinguished professor at The University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health is at the forefront of restoring critical water services to the people of the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation of the islands on Nov. 7.

The Philippines government contacted the leaders of Aquagenx LLC to request the use of the company’s Compartment Bag Test (CBT), a portable, self-contained microbial water test that helps response teams test and assess the safety of drinking water post-disaster.

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Dr. Mark Sobsey

Aquagenx and the CBT are the result of groundbreaking research and development led by Mark D. Sobsey, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and Ku McMahan, PhD, Gillings School alumnus and fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Science and Technology, in Washington, D.C.

The initial focus of these efforts will be on the Island of Samar which, like Leyte Province, was severely impacted by the typhoon. Aquagenx personnel also will support national government officials in Manila to promote improved disaster preparedness for emergency response efforts targeting the restoration of critical water services.

Because fecal contamination frequently finds its way into drinking water after natural disasters, the CBT is routinely used for water quality monitoring in disaster settings and resource-limited regions of the world where access to laboratories, electricity and transportation are limited. Litte training is needed to use the CBT to detect and quantify the concentration of E. coli bacteria in a small (100 mL) sample, no matter where they are.

“After flooding or other natural disasters, water system infrastructure can become disabled and damaged,” Sobsey said. “This often results in the introduction of sewage or other fecal wastes loaded with intestinal pathogens into water systems. The CBT is a simple method for water system operators to determine if water delivered to their customers is safe for consumption.”

Sobsey said that because it is impractical and costly to monitor all pathogens in drinking water, certain fecal indicator microorganisms such as E. coli are used to evaluate the microbiological quality of drinking water.

“The World Health Organization and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommend [testing] a 100 mL sample volume of water for E. coli to determine if water poses a health risk. This is what the CBT does, and Aquagenx is honored our test will be used to help identify safe drinking water after Super Typhoon Haiyan.”

Super Typhoon Haiyan struck in the Visayas (central) region of the Philippines with the provinces of Leyte and the island of Samar receiving the greatest damage. Aquagenx will provide human resources and testing equipment while working directly with water utility operators and local governments in the areas of greatest impact in an effort to help them verify the water delivered by these utilities to their customers is potable.

Aquagenx develops customized CBT packages and programs for disaster relief water testing and monitoring initiatives. Disaster relief responders and providers can contact Aquagenx for more information.

Founded in 2012, Aquagenx has received awards and honors for the CBT, including the USAID Pioneers Prize 2013 and LAUNCH Innovation Prize 2010. USAID featured the test recently on the cover of its innovations catalog, “The Catalog: Version 1.0.”

Aquagenx is a portfolio company of the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network. Don Holzworth is its entrepreneur-in-residence.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu