A group of Hope College students researching global water issues in 25 countries are tracking what they think could be a worldwide solution to unsafe drinking water.

Hope College has partnered with Florida-based Sawyer Products and Give Clean Water, a California-based nonprofit, to help provide clean water to residents in Fiji. Devastation still lingers there after three hurricanes pummeled the island in the past two years, leaving about 500,000 people -- nearly 50 percent of the island’s population – without access to safe water.

While teams from Give Clean Water are in Fiji providing residents with the Sawyer PointONE waters, and teaching them how to clean the filter -- a crucial step that keeps the water safe and usable, Hope College students are busy tracking and researching the Fiji water results on the college’s Holland, Michigan campus – leading to what could be a worldwide shift in clean water sources.

“We have projects in place that look at the health impacts of introducing filters into households and schools in Fiji, and let us see how the filters are improving the water that Fijians are drinking,” said Dr. Aaron Best, who is the Harrison C. and Mary L. Visscher Professor of Genetics and department chair at Hope. “This is a rare opportunity where college students can answer scientific questions about global water supplies, as well as see the actual impact these filters have on people’s lives.”

Hope students helped developed a series of questions that are presented to Fijian households before they receive a Sawyer filter, and again at different intervals after using the filter on a daily basis. Questions include how often they have diarrhea, a common sign of illness and disease, how often they have missed school or work due to illness and how much money they are spending on water and healthcare in relation to waterborne disease. The students’ data shows after two weeks of Fijian communities using the Sawyer filter, diarrhea dropped from 15-17 percent to below 2 percent.

“The fact that we can see the results of placing Sawyer filters in a household within a two-week period is quite fascinating,” Best said. “This is a project that has a real-world impact. It’s not just basic science. This is a project with Sawyer that allows us to see immediate impact and that’s gratifying not only for me as a researcher, but also for my students. This gives them the opportunity to come in and research something they know will have an impact on the world.”

Student working on water testingIn addition to Fiji, the students are collecting and testing Sawyer filters that have been placed in 25 countries to capture the various types of bacteria and pathogens in the water. Then, they place the filtered water into a second Sawyer filter to examine if any bacteria still remain.

“You can see the reduction of bacteria compared from the first filter to the second filter that was tested, showing that the bacteria is, in fact, being removed by the Sawyer filter,” said Meghana Sunder, a Hope College sophomore studying biology and computer science. “So if people from these specific countries aren’t using a Sawyer filter with their drinking water, then they are exposing themselves to potential disease-causing bacteria.”

The college students testing the Sawyer water filters say their part in the project goes beyond the research data they’re recording in the lab.

“It’s a special feeling to know you’re part of something bigger and that you’re doing something that is helping people from all around the world,” said Jacob Spry, a Hope College junior majoring in biology. “I will probably never come in contact with the people that the research I’m doing is helping, but just knowing that I’m part of something that’s larger than myself and working with a company that is committed to helping people around the world has been pretty incredible.”

In August, Best and Darrel Larson, international director of Sawyer Products, began a new collaboration that introduces Sawyer filters to Child Hope’s 16 schools in the Dominican Republic, as well as the households of those 900 children. A local church there donated 2,800 Sawyer water filters for the study, which will monitor children’s health effects from filter introductions and record water quality assessments.

“We are studying how kids thrive when they receive clean drinking water in both schools and in their homes,” Larson said. “By looking at different options when introducing a filter to specific groups, we can determine the best outcome for future filter introductions in other parts of the world.”