Human Practices – Groundwater contamination in rural India

Below is a summary of our research into the suitability of our system for use in the field.

Finding a Market

The potential use of our system in this context first came to light when we became aware of WaterLifeIndia Ltd who won an award for inclusive business models at the G20 conference earlier this year for their work in providing clean, safe water in response to groundwater contamination for B.O.P. (economic base of the pyramid) customers in India.

We then contacted the British Red Cross, often the first on the ground when disaster strikes, to ask about the human impact of water contamination. When first arriving, all water must be treated as contaminated until it has been tested and shown not to be. For people living in areas with chronic contamination problems, finding clean water is an incredibly time consuming process which can take many hours out of peoples (predominantly women’s) days.

Further research showed that the problem is extensive and as of April 2011, Arsenic, Fluoride, Iron, Salinity and Nitrate groundwater contamination continued to be a problem in many states – especially in rural areas. Before these problems can be tackled, the scope of the problem must first be determined, requiring sensitive detection apparatus.

The consequences of fluoride contamination of ground water. Fluoride has been shown to damage the enamel of teeth in children between the ages of 0-8. This dental fluorosis is often accompanied by skeletal fluorosis, associated with skeletal pain and problems with movement. Excessive fluoride ingestion has also been linked to neurological damage in young children.

Who is our market?

Groundwater contamination can be caused by a variety of factors ranging from natural disasters to improper disposal of industrial waste. Within the topic of groundwater contamination therefore, there is still substantial variety among potential customers. We anticipate that these customers will be looking at levels of a variety of contaminants in different areas though we anticipate that they will need their testing system to provide reliable, accurate quantitative data about more than one contaminant and that testing will probably involve multiple tests over a prolonged time span. Customers may include researchers, charity workers, public health workers or heavy industries aiming to reduce their environmental impact.

What are the current options available?

Because of the rural nature of many of the presumed testing sites, standard laboratory equipment is impractical. A portable system is therefore a necessity.

Currently, two main types of sensing system are readily available for purchase.

The first is a strip test system. The great advantages of this system is that it is far cheaper than the alternative and highly portable – the strips are extremely light and can easily be carried in pockets if more than one site within a location is to be tested. It is also quick and easy to acquire. Searching the internet for ‘groundwater testing kit’ brings up dozens of websites from which these systems can be purchased instantly and in the possession of the customer within days.

The downsides to this system are that:

  1. the tests are disposable and suitable for a single use only meaning that many have to be used and the product continuously repurchased if long term testing is going to be considered.
  2. each strip will only test for one contaminant. Where a groundwater source is contaminated, it is unlikely that only a single potential contaminant will be of interest. For highly focussed research this may be acceptable, but in the case of broader research more than one kind of test strip will almost certainly be needed, and as with the problem of disposability, this will push up the costs.
  3. These tests are often not highly quantitative – quantitative to the extent of orders of magnitude but without providing precise information about contamination levels which makes them unsuitable for detailed examination of contamination levels at a source, especially if the study involves taking multiple readings over a period of time, when the change could be small.
A comparison of the ARSOlux kit (160 assays) (left) - a bioreporter kit - and the Arsonator kit (60 assays) (right) - an electronic water testing system. From Siegfried et al. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2012

The other major option is an electronic water testing system. These have the advantages of being far more quantitative, largely reusable and often considering more than one contaminant within the same system. As with the strip tests however, there are major disadvantages.

  1. acquiring these systems is not as easy. Often, instead of prices being offered, a quote must be obtained. A level of customisation is sometimes possible with the technology but it is invariably by far the more expensive of the two options.
  2. electronic systems tend to be bigger and heavier, with complete systems often coming in bulky cases that would be difficult to transport without a vehicle. These systems act more as a field lab, and as such portability is vastly reduced.

The major disadvantages to these systems are on one side a lack of quantitative results and reusability and on the other high, often prohibitive, costs.

How our system is different

Our system has been designed to be relatively low cost and the prices we have paid in producing the project, while not high, would be dramatically reduced by mass production. The system is light and portable but, between the output system and the implementation system, provides highly quantitative data. While the cuvettes and bacteria are single use, the implementation system is reusable.

We consider there to be a potential market for a reliable, accurate, precise, quantitative measuring system that without the price tag of current electronic systems. We also feel that our system could fill this niche.

Likely Problems

While the use of genetically modified bacteria as bioreporters is relatively recent, other genetically modified organisms have been sold in India for over a decade. Using this as a precedent, we have investigated problems our system would probably have to face before full implementation could be enacted.

The law – India banned the use of a GM eggplant shortly before it was due to be planted in 2010 and has recently revoked Monsanto’s liscence to distribute GM Bt cotton for planting in India. While this product is not a GM crop, it does not suggest that the wide distribution of such a system would be welcomed. The law on GM products varies from country to country and this may limit the available markets for a product.

Public perception – It has been very difficult to find unbiased sources when looking at public perceptions of GM. Organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth remain predictably opposed and while we, as students of a prestigious academic institution studying sciences and engineering and producing GM bacteria through a synthetic biology competition, do not claim to be unbiased we have attempted to set out as balanced a view as possible of the common arguments for and against GMOs.

Common arguments in support of GMOs:

1. Increased crop yields

2. Increased range of environmental conditions under which crops may be grown

3. Potential for growing crops in places where they previously could not

4. Pharming - the possibility of using GM crops to produce pharmaceuticals rather than food

5. Increased yield for biofuel crops, or crops drastically engineered to produce hydrogen

Major success story: Insulin. Most human insulin is now produced by genetically modified E.coli. This is the accepted norm and even anti GM NGOs are reluctant to attack it. The obvious difference between this and the potential use of our system is that the insulin is produced in a laboratory and then shipped out to the consumer. At no stage does the customer come into contact with the bacteria so there is no chance of contamination.

Common arguments against the use of GMOs:

1. Strong public apprehension over an unfamiliar technology – which may require mass education programs to conquer.

2. Potential for unintended consequences – e.g. accidental activation or silencing of genes

3. High susceptibility of monocultures to pathogens – the genetic diversity usually found in non-GM populations means that if any plant is susceptible to a novel pathogen, the entire crop can be destroyed. This is somewhat unfortunate given that GM crops are often created for the purpose of resistance to pathogens

4.It has been argued that GMOs are merely a ‘quick fix’ to the global food problem when changes to human behaviour would be more appropriate

5. Potential for the companies that produce them to excersise an undue amount of power over the producers, buyers and ultimately consumers of the GMOs. This is a problem more with the distribution end of the business, but a valid concern – Monsanto is often cited as a case of this.

Major distress story: Monsanto’s Bt cotton in India. This has been linked to multiple instances of host resistance, ill treatment of farmers by Monsanto and has recently been banned in India.

Public perceptions of GMOs in India:

Public perceptions in India are varied. Scientists and highly educated professionals tend to be more open to the idea of using GM crops so long as they are properly regulated. Farmers however often show a suspicion of GM foods, which is unlikely to have been improved by the Monsanto scandal.

While the product in question is not a crop, public attitudes to GM crops often extend to GMOs of all kinds and this may limit the capacity to market and sell the product in this culture. More research into public opinion would be needed.

Concerns about the product

Infection – Probably a major concern of most consumers. The bacteria used in our project were biosafety level one, non-pathogenic and their pathogenicity has not been increased by the addition of our system. In their current state, they pose no threat to the consumer or the environment. We additionally would not support the sale of this system using anything more dangerous than biosafety level one.

Disposal – the bacteria are currently stored in open topped plastic cuvettes for testing. This is clearly unsuitable in the field and would need to be swapped for an enclosed system, possibly with a valve to add the water for testing. Additionally, while autoclaving is used in the laboratory to destroy leftover bacteria, this is impossible in the field and B.subtilis usually produces spores when confronted with chemicals like bleach and alcohol often used antibacterially. We propose therefore that a system would be investigated that would allow the bacteria to sporulate only once. Having sporulated to be stored and shipped to their destination and germinated for testing, the bacteria would then be unable to re-sporulate, making them sensitive to solvents and detergents. We suggest that a small pouch of this could be included in the bacteria container to be activated once testing has finished, destroying the bacteria.


Validation of Two Portable Instruments to Measure Iron Concentration in Groundwater in Rural Bangladesh

Iron and Manganese in Groundwater

Fluoride contamination in groundwater

Perceptions about GM crops

Factors influencing public perception of GMOs

Aversions to GM foods in India

Attitudes towards biotechnology

Perceptions of GM crops in India

Greenpeace on Golden Rice

Friends of the Earth on GM aubergine

Friends of the Earth on GM and Monsanto

GM crops

Resistance to GM around the world

Friends of the Earth on GM and biotech giants

GM foods in India

India and Bt cotton

GM foods and India