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Pitt Grad a Global Hero for Saving Lives


A simple, inexpensive filter that removes arsenic from drinking water is saving lives in Bangladesh, the home country of the filter’s inventor, Pitt alumnus Abul Hussam.

Hussam said he never could have created the device—which purifies water through a series of sand, wood, brick, and iron-composite filters—without the knowledge he acquired as a Pitt doctoral student. He completed his PhD in analytical chemistry at Pitt in 1982. Today he’s an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at George Mason University.

Hussam’s design and creation of a reliable, affordable, and sustainable method for treating arsenic-contaminated groundwater “is helping to solve a massive public health problem—the poisoning of millions of people in Bangladesh and other developing countries,” remarked Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg in 2007 when Hussam received the $1 million Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability for his invention, called the SONO filter.

The Grainger Prize was created in 2005 to spur the development of arsenic filters that would be simple and affordable (no electricity required, for example), and within the manufacturing capabilities of developing countries.

Hussam first developed a device for measuring arsenic in the well waters of his hometown of Kushtia, to test the theory—developed by his brother, a physician—that arsenic was causing the symptoms his brother was seeing in his patients: painful skin nodules, liver problems, and weakness. Once Hussam confirmed that many of the wells in Kushtia contained unsafe levels of the toxic mineral, he began work on a filter powerful enough to eliminate it.

Since 1999, tens of thousands of SONO filters have been distributed at the price of about $40 each. One filter purifies enough water in two hours to serve the daily needs of a family of five.

For his invention, Time magazine named Hussam a Global Hero of the Environment in 2007.