Grant allows ETSU trio to work on water quality in Rwandan village

water filter

JOHNSON CITY (March 24, 2015) – Cooking pasta for dinner. Rehydrating after a long run. Sterilizing a child’s scraped knee. For many, these are basic everyday tasks, the ability to complete them often taken for granted. For others, they are nearly impossible feats because of the quality of water in their community.

East Tennessee State University doctoral student Beth O’Connell has seen some of the world’s worst water quality issues up close and personal in the last several years and, with help from some of faculty in the College of Public Health, she is working diligently to improve such conditions in low-resource communities.

While she has hopes of worldwide water improvement through her work, O’Connell is starting out by offering aid to those living in Cyegera, a small village in Rwanda.

“My first trip there was in 2009. I started with a non-profit organization called Hope 2.2.1. that some of my friends were working with,” said O’Connell, who also received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from ETSU. “At that time, I had a general interest in global health, but not specific to water quality until I saw the need for it there.”

During her undergraduate field experience, O’Connell helped place biosand water filters in a children’s home and at a school in the village. Commonly used in developing countries, the filters remove pathogens and other contaminants from community drinking water to make it safer for use and consumption.

“When I first went there, the children were routinely sick with all sorts of things, but especially with diarrheal diseases,” says O’Connell, who took her sixth trip to the village last July. “That is really at a minimum at this point. Diarrheal disease is the No. 1 cause of death in children under 5 in sub-saharan Africa and No. 2 cause of death in the world, so that is huge.”

While the success of the filters is evident, how long they last remains somewhat of a mystery.

“They have to be tested in a lab, and because it is so rural there, we don’t have access to a lab,” O’Connell explains. “It’s not practical to expect it to be done in a lab.”

Through a university Research Development Committee grant awarded to Dr. Megan Quinn, an assistant professor in ETSU’s Biostatistics and Epidemiology, the two women, along with Dr. Phillip Scheuerman, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health, hope to create and evaluate a tool that can be used out in the field to test the filters.

“The goal is to test some of the most basic and user friendly field use indicators. We have narrowed it down to three,” O’Connell says. “We’re going to test them in the lab setting here then do a field test in Rwanda.”

The researchers want to find a low-cost, easy-to-use field-use indicator that the people of the village can utilize to test their own filters and have long-term trust in the functionality of the filters.

“Clean water plays such a huge role in quality of life. When there is a guarantee of clean water, a mother doesn’t have to worry anymore about her kid drinking water that is contaminated and dying from it,” Quinn said. “There’s just so many things it impacts. If they can take that piece – the lack of clean water – out of the equation, hopefully it will improve the overall wellness of the community.”

The trio’s efforts will include creating 20 biosand water filters at ETSU’s Eastman Valleybrook Campus for live testing of the field use indicators. The yearlong study also will allow for eight more filters to be installed in the Rwandan village and field testing to be conducted by O’Connell this May.

In addition to serving as the primary investigator in the grant-funded research, Quinn brings another layer to the project thanks to her focus in epidemiology.

“The void in the area is the whole epidemiology side of these issues,” said Scheuerman, whose own role in the project has been dealing with experimental design and determining concepts to test. “There’s not nearly as much epi, in the U.S. and internationally, with using things to identify approaches that better overall community health. The collaboration is going to be really fruitful.”

Quinn, a graduate of ETSU’s doctoral program in epidemiology, will take data from the group’s efforts to study the patterns, causes and effects of health and disease conditions related to water quality. What she determines from the data could then be applied in other parts of the world.

“It’s exciting to be able to do something that will have pretty large impact on a community and a trickle-out affect to where what we do can apply to other places, too,” says Quinn. “It has so much potential.”

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