For a few cents each month, families in poor countries are purifying drinking water by using diluted bleach and germ-resistant jugs as part of a program that is cutting in half the deadly cases of waterborne diarrheal diseases, U.S. health officials said.
It is a low-tech approach that proponents say can pay for itself and even boost villages' economies. The pilot program has proved effective enough that the United States and a group of charities will seek to expand it to 20 developing countries. That announcement is planned for an international water meeting in Japan this month.
The key is empowering some of the 1.1 billion people who drink water tainted by sewage, natural bacteria and parasites to protect themselves against some of those threats.
"You can provide people with a means to treat their own drinking water," said Dr. Eric Mintz of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It works in the real world."
Dirty water's chief bane is diarrhea, from cholera, E. coli bacteria and other bugs. Diarrheal diseases are a particular threat to young children, killing 2.2 million of them each year, says Population Services International, a nonprofit group working with CDC and UNICEF to expand the safe-water system.
Although boiling water kills bacteria, it does not kill many parasites, and firewood can be scarce and expensive. Nor does that stop family members from reinfecting the household water bucket with dirty hands or cups, a problem the CDC discovered during a major cholera epidemic in Latin America.
It will take decades for governments to build reliable water-treatment systems and pipe clean water in developing nations. The CDC, working with the World Health Organization, set out to find a simple, affordable way for families to purify their own water in the meantime.
Small amounts of chlorine far more diluted than laundry bleach are a staple of modern water treatment. The CDC first experimented with generators that let remote villages brew their own chlorine from salt. Then scientists began working with bleach makers in different countries to produce bottles of the special, diluted version.
The CDC also helped jug makers design germ-resistant versions, similar to what U.S. campers frequently use. They are big enough to hold a day's supply, with fill holes small enough to block hands and a spigot at the bottom.
People just needs to add one capful of disinfectant to each water-filled jug and wait 20 minutes.
A bottle of disinfectant, enough to last an average family a month, sells for 15 cents to 30 cents, Mintz said. That is enough to cover production costs and bring a few pennies profit to the producers and village kiosks that sell the products, he said.
Pilot testing in such countries as Zambia, Kenya and India show the chlorine-and-safe-storage system can cut the rate of diarrheal disease in half, Mintz said.