Dirty water still kills millions of people every year. One ingenious invention can remove dangerous microbes as they flow towards your mouth. Would you drink it?
“I wouldn’t drink that if I were you.”
I’m sprawled inelegantly on the concrete banks of the Thames, leaning down to scoop some of its green, murky liquid into an empty water bottle. Already, it’s a scene of utter chaos. An unusually large wave has caught me off guard and sloshed water all up my sleeve. Hungry seagulls are swooping down from every direction. A large crowd of ducks has come to investigate – and two formidable geese are making hissing noises.
The advice is proffered by a man on a nearby boat, who has been watching me with an expression of amused bewilderment for some time. Alas, he disappears below deck before I can tell him that drinking the water is precisely what I’m going to do.
My mad plan begins with a startling fact. According to the World Health Organisation, some 2.1 billion people on our pale blue planet do not have a safe source of water to drink. Consequently, more people die from drinking contaminated water every year than from any form of violence, including war.
The Thames is quiet and cleaner before it enters London, where it can become polluted with sewage (Credit: Getty Images)
As the world’s population expands and climate change sets in, our water woes are becoming increasingly severe. By 2025, half the world’s population will be living where the demand for safe water exceeds its supply.
Enter a new generation of bold solutions, from water purifiers that run on faeces to machines that work by filtering out particles using fizzy water. One of these is the LifeStraw, which cleans water by passing it through a bunch of long, hollow fibres encased in a plastic tube.
The original version works like a normal drinking straw; you simply plunge one end into some water, then suck through the other. Anything larger than two microns, or a hundredth of the thickness of a human hair, will be trapped inside before it makes it to your mouth. This includes 99.9% of parasites and 99.9999% of bacteria, such as those that cause cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever. When sipped through a LifeStraw, even the muddiest water comes out as clear as a mountain spring.
It all started back in 1996, when a Danish entrepreneur, Mikkel Frandsen, transformed his grandfather’s uniform manufacturing business to focus on improving the lives of people in Africa instead. The earliest version of the LifeStraw was created to help eradicate guinea worm, one of the most gruesome diseases to survive into the 21st Century.
It’s caused by a Russian doll of nasty things – dirty water, infected with fleas, infected with worm larvae. If you’re unlucky enough to drink any, the worms will mature and breed within your body over several months, eventually popping up at the surface of the skin where they try to wriggle through. The end result is often infections and, occasionally, amputated limbs. It’s excruciatingly painful and there’s no vaccine or drug that can treat it.
To begin with, the straw contained a simple streel mesh that could remove the relatively large fleas. Over the past two decades, Frandsen’s company has supplied the eradication effort with more than 37 million of them, which has helped to reduce the number of guinea worm cases from 3.5 million in 1986 to just 25 last year. “This will be the second disease ever eradicated,” says DeWitte.
The straw was designed to beat guinea worm, a debilitating parasite found in Africa (Credit: Getty Images)
Today the technology has evolved to the point where a single straw can filter all the bacteria, parasites, and fleas from 4,000 litres of water, enough to keep its owner safe for several years. Meanwhile scaled-up, gravity-powered versions have been used in the aftermath of disasters in Haiti, Ecuador, Pakistan and Thailand, and the company that makes them is over half way to providing clean drinking water to a million students in Kenya.
To see this incredible technology in action, I tested the original LifeStraw on the most disgusting liquid I could find in London: water from the Thames. But exactly how risky is this? And why should we care?
“There’s a very long list of pathogens in the Thames,” says Andrew Singer, a senior scientific officer at the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. When I tell him about the LifeStraw, he laughs heartily. “Well your experiment is certainly going to test it for sure.”
Though many of us assume that “treated” sewage is relatively clean, the reality is very different
In fact, a large proportion of what comes out of Londoners – around 15 million of us – goes into the Thames. “The amount of water in there is quite low compared to the number of people, which means that we have less water to dilute what we put into it. Effectively our rivers are between 10% and 100% sewage at times,” says Singer. Generally this is treated sewage, though occasionally it’s raw.
And though many of us assume that “treated” sewage is relatively clean, the reality is very different.
These under-20s are also tackling water pollution
- When she was in the sixth grade, Maria Elena Grimmett discovered that the water well near her house had been tainted brown by a common veterinary antibiotic. For years afterwards, she dedicated her summers to finding a way to remove it, and eventually came up with sticky plastic beads, which grab onto the compound as it flows past them. It earned her a place in history as the youngest ever author of a paper in the Journal of Environmental Quality and a $100,000 (£72,500) scholarship.
- Deepika Kurup invented her water purification system on a folding table in her family garage, which she turned into a makeshift chemistry lab. The teenager’s idea involves adding a rod of metal oxides to clear water bottles, then leaving them out in the sun. As UV rays hit the rod, they cause it to release sterilising chemicals that can make the water safe to drink after just 15 minutes, which is much quicker than current methods. Kurup’s system won the America’s Top Young Scientist award in 2012.
- During her childhood in India, Lalita Prasida Sripada Srisai met a farmer who told her about the large number of corn cobs that the industry throws away. Later, while pondering water pollution as a 14-year-old, she had an idea: why not use them to clean household waste? Cobs are surprisingly absorbent, and her invention can remove up to 80% of contaminants, including detergents and lead. It won the 2015 Google Science Fair award.
“Pathogens get reduced in number, but that’s about all we can reliably say,” says Singer. The main dangers in most rivers are the parasites Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia, which cause diarrhoea and have spores so tiny and difficult to kill, they sometimes make it into tap water.
Instead, the primary aim of sewage treatment is to reduce the amount of harmful microorganisms and organic matter that it contains. The latter is crucial, because as debris decays, it tends to suck the oxygen out of water and can have a devastating impact on aquatic wildlife.
Water pollution in Flint, Michigan became a huge story in the US (Credit: Getty Images)
Sewage also brings with it a hefty dose of pharmaceuticals. One 2013 study of worldwide wastewater treatment plants found that just half of 42 substances present in sewage, such as caffeine and antibiotics, were removed by the treatment process.
Then there’s all the stuff that gets dragged into rivers when it rains. This includes pesticides, herbicides, animal waste, which includes small amounts of toxic metals such as cadmium – “They’re fed to farm animals as “nutritional supplements”, which is really just growth promotion,” says Singer – and anything that the city’s many ducks, seagulls and sewer rats expel. “It gets diluted, but not to the point where you can’t find it. It’s all there.”
Finally, there’s plastic. A 2016 study found some 35,000 plastic particles in samples taken from the Thames, mostly from broken down food and drinks containers.
As far as industrialised countries go, I’d say the Thames is pretty typical. I can’t truly imagine many rivers being worse than the rivers in those flowing in many parts of India - Andrew Singer
This pollution has a number of unpleasant side-effects, including transgendered and dopey fish that make easy prey, after swimming around in water contaminated with the contraceptive pill, plastics – which mimic the chemistry of oestrogen – and calming antidepressants. It also means that interacting with the river is particularly risky. For example, swimming events in the Thames are regularly followed by mass illness.
“As far as industrialised countries go, I’d say the Thames is pretty typical. I can’t truly imagine many rivers being worse than the rivers in those flowing in many parts of India,” says Singer.
Luckily for me, the LifeStraw will remove any bacteria and parasites that might be lurking, as well as plastic and a fair amount of mud. All that will be left is anything dissolved or particularly small, such as metals, viruses, pesticides and herbicides. Here Singer isn’t exactly reassuring – “Pretty much every virus that has ever existed on Earth is running through the Thames,” he says – but I’m banking on these only being present in very small amounts. I’m not exactly going to make this a habit.
Even if you’re not reckless enough to drink directly from a river, the pollution in our rivers might not be as distant we’d like to think. Today 83% of tap water around the globe contains plastic fibres, while dissolved oestrogen is thought to be contributing to rapidly declining sperm counts in men.
“The issues with safe water don’t stop at microbiological,” says LifeStraw’s Managing Director Alison Hill. “And while we think of unsafe water as being predominantly limited to the developing world, I think what we’ve seen in the last five years, in places like Flint, Michigan, is that the issue of safe water is an American concern as well.”
The LifeStraw's makers say that it can remove 99.9% of parasites and bacteria from untreated water (Credit: Zaria Gorvett)
The recent Flint water crisis, in which over 100,000 people were exposed to dangerously high levels of lead, has put the spotlight on these chemical sources of contamination. A report filed last year found that more than 63 million Americans were exposed to unsafe drinking water over the last decade, which may have contained anything from industrial pollutants to illegal quantities of chemical fertilisers.
“There are two main factors,” says Matt DeWitte, Lifestraw’s head of marketing. “One is that the global population is increasingly urbanised, and that means we have to move from filtering biological contaminants only, to also being concerned about heavy metals, pesticides and pharmaceuticals etc. The other overall trend that you see is in countries like the US specifically is the breakdown of infrastructure and that has created an immediate need to respond to things like lead removal.”
Eventually I managed to collect enough water from the Thames without falling in, or being attacked by ducks. To avoid any more looks from strangers, I decided to drink it from the safety of my flat.
Operating the straw is easy – you simply remove the protective caps from either end, dip it into an unpalatable drink of your choice, and use it like a regular straw.
It took a few seconds, but soon a steady stream of freshly filtered river water was flowing through. The verdict? It was icy cold and actually surprisingly refreshing. I thought I could detect notes of damp vegetation, but this was probably my imagination.
And no, I didn’t get sick.
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What is the miraculous straw that lets you drink dirty water? ›
The earliest version of the LifeStraw was created to help eradicate guinea worm, one of the most gruesome diseases to survive into the 21st Century. It's caused by a Russian doll of nasty things – dirty water, infected with fleas, infected with worm larvae.Can you drink dirty water with LifeStraw? ›
In the LifeStraw Max's membrane ultrafilters, the pores allow water through but block the passage of anything larger than 0.02 micron (20 nanometers) in diameter. As a result, they reduce virus levels in sewage-contaminated water by 99.999% and bacteria by 99.999999%, rendering the water safe to drink.What is helping the boy to drink liquid with straw? ›
When we suck on a straw stuck into a liquid, we actually suck the air out of the straw. This decreases the air pressure inside the straw. The higher atmospheric pressure outside forces the liquid to go up into the straw, and into our mouth. Thus, we are able to drink the juice or liquid using a straw.What can I drink through a LifeStraw? ›
With the LifeStraw, you can drink directly from a water source (such as a stream, mud puddle, or lake), but keep in mind the ground might be soggy. I only drink from the water body if the ground is rocky, otherwise I'll end up getting damp from lying on the wet ground beside the creek.Is there kissing in miraculous? ›
In fact, they both confess and reciprocate each other's feelings. Before things are returned to normal, Ladybug and Cat Noir share a kiss, which neither one remembers once Oblivio is defeated. RELATED: Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions: What Is Chunibyo?Do you have to boil LifeStraw water? ›
A: The LifeStraw Personal removes 99.999% of bacteria and parasites. So drinking through the filter will remove all contaminants that can get you sick! No need to boil water first. Eartheasy Inc.Does the LifeStraw work on urine? ›
LifeStraw products do not remove dissolved salts and are not designed to be used to drink non-diluted urine. Because of this, we do not recommend drinking urine with any LifeStraw product in even low amounts.Do Lifestraws go bad? ›
What's the shelf life of this product? The original LifeStraw personal water filter has an unlimited shelf life! Once used, the filter lasts up to 1,000 gallons (4,000 liters) - enough to last an individual for over 5 years!Why did the liquid stay in the straw? ›
'For a liquid trapped between two parallel walls, and for a liquid trapped in a circular capillary like a straw, the answer is one that we would intuitively expect: the liquid wants to flow out because of gravity, but is trapped due to the surface tension. 'Can we sip water with straw on moon? ›
No, you can't. Because there is no atmosphere (filled with air) and atmospheric pressure. ie; straw depends on the surrounding pressure of the atmosphere to push matter into our mouths, it follows that a straw could not work in space. Q.
What happened to the liquid in the straw? ›
The straw has solid sides, so the air can only affect the liquid in it through the openings in the top and bottom. When you pick up a straw from a drink, the air rushes into the top opening of the straw and pushes the liquid down into your cup.Can you put ice in a LifeStraw? ›
A: The minimum temperature is 33 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius). Extreme heat or freezing temperatures could damage the LifeStraw filter and impact performance - which means you could get sick if the filter doesn't work due to temperature extremes.What is the weakness of LifeStraw? ›
The biggest weakness of the LifeStraw is that you can't process unfiltered water and save it for later use. That limits its utility for backpackers who are always on the move and need to drink water regularly when they hike.What can LifeStraw not filter? ›
The original device does not filter viruses, chemicals, salt water, and heavy metals, but newer versions of the product, (like LifeStraw Flex or LifeStraw Home) are capable of removing chemicals and heavy metals including lead.How does the straw trick work? ›
Sealing the top of a straw with your finger stops air entering and exerting a downward force on the liquid, leaving only the upwards force of air pressure from below. This upwards force is stronger than the force of gravity pulling down on the liquid.How do water magic straws work? ›
These straws create a unique experience by creating two flavors in the straw. Starting with the beads dissolving and creating the first flavor, then the effervescent tabs start to dissolve and add a whole new layer of flavor. Water Magic is here to make drinking water a fun experience.How to do the straw challenge? ›
Have them cross their left arm across their right arm and press the tip of their pointer finger on their left hand against the end of their neighbor on the rights' straw. This should allow the tip of each of their pointers to be in contact with a straw.Does Marinette have a bro? ›
Marin Dupain-Cheng, Marinette's elder brother is coming to Paris after 6 years to start his higher medical course studies. Marinette thinks her brother doesn't love her like she does. But she did not expect her brother to come to Paris all of a sudden.Did Lila kiss Adrien? ›
When Lila becomes akumatized into Chameleon, her first victim was Adrien. She returns back to the locker room and apologizes for getting mad. She then kisses him on the cheek which makes her transform into Adrien with the real Adrien falling into a short sleep.Does LifeStraw remove taste? ›
Because it has a built-in filter, it is no surprise that the LifeStraw Go gets a relatively high score regarding taste. The hollow fiber membrane and integrated activated carbon capsule filters bacteria and reduces chlorine and bad taste.
Why is my LifeStraw hard to drink? ›
If your filters are stored for long periods of time and appear to be blocked when trying to resume use, what you likely need to do is re-activate the hydrophilic properties of the membrane again or essentially lubricate the membrane so it easily pulls water through.Can you use LifeStraw in rain water? ›
You can drink rainwater with the LifeStraw. Rainwater is known for containing a wide range of contaminants, which is why it's always best to filter it out with a product like LifeStraw.Can I filter my pee and drink it? ›
That said, it is possible to drink your urine without ill effects. A healthy person who's fully hydrated likely wouldn't be harmed by a couple cups of his own clear cocktail (not golden at this point). Urine is about 95% water. It is not completely sterile of microorganisms, as many sources incorrectly state.How can I filter my urine? ›
Water purification tablets is another quick way to drink your urine, because they're small and easy to carry, but they usually contain iodine which kills bacteria and not all of the specific waste products in your urine. Building a solar still is the best way to go, but more time consuming.Do I need to clean my LifeStraw? ›
We recommend regularly backwashing your personal water filter straw for optimal filter lifetime. Regularly blow air through your filter after drinking to keep the filter clean and prevent it from clogging.How do you sanitize LifeStraw? ›
Disinfect. For LifeStraw Go, Universal, Flex and Play, mix ¼ teaspoon of household bleach with 2 cups of clean water and pour solution into bottle/flask, closing the lid when filled. Let stand for 5 minutes. Empty the bottle or container and rinse with new water, shaking the filter.How often should I change my LifeStraw filter? ›
Replacing Your LifeStraw Home Activated Carbon and Ion Exchange Filter. Each Activated Carbon and Ion Exchange filter has a lifetime of approximately 40 gallons (150 liters). We recommend changing it every 2 months.Do straws work in a vacuum? ›
Because a straw depends on the surrounding pressure of the atmosphere to push matter into our mouths, it follows that a straw could not work in space. Because empty space is (nearly) a vacuum, there is nothing to force the water into your mouth.What happens when you put a straw in a glass of water the water seems to climb up the straw before you even place your mouth on the straw? ›
An example of capillary action is when you place a straw into a glass of water. The water seems to climb up the straw before you even place your mouth on the straw. The water has created hydrogen bonds with the surface of the straw, causing the water to adhere to the sides of the straw.Why does the straw not work if there is a hole in it? ›
Air is lighter than water. So, whenever we suck, lighter air moves inside easily. Water will not. If all holes are closed, then water will move again.
Should you drink full moon water? ›
Since it is believed both moon and water have calming and soothing properties; and form an elemental balance, they can help in overcoming hormonal imbalance. Other than that, moon water can help in revitalizing and cleansing your energy.Can water in moon be used? ›
Facts worth sharing. The Moon's poles have permanently shadowed regions that never receive sunlight, where spacecraft have detected large amounts of water ice. Future astronauts could use the ice for air, water, and propellant.What is the longest straw you can drink out of? ›
The pressure of the atmosphere can only push the liquid up so high. no one, no matter how strong, could drink through a 35 foot straw. In Colorado, the limit is even less. Atmospheric pressure is lower, so a 30 foot straw will do the trick.Can water bend a straw? ›
The straw appears bent because rays of light travel more slowly through mediums such as glass and water than they do through air. Since the light from the straw in the water reaches observers eyes later than the part of the straw not in the water, the straw appears broken or bent.How high can you drink from a straw? ›
There is a limit though. If you could create a complete vacuum in your mouth by removing all the air, the water could rise about 30 feet high. It's not possible, however, to create a complete vacuum in the human mouth, so usually people reach their straw-slurping limit at a much lower level!Can LifeStraw drink salt water? ›
Can you use LifeStraw to drink sea/salt water? No. The minerals in salt water are simply too small to be filtered. The same goes for urine.Does LifeStraw remove viruses? ›
LifeStraw Membrane Ultrafilter Removes:
99.999999% of bacteria. 99.999% viruses. 99.999% of parasites. 99.999% of microplastics, dirt, sand, and cloudiness.
The draw of a LifeStraw is that you can use it to safely drink practically any water, including water from lakes, rivers and even puddles.Does LifeStraw remove mercury? ›
LifeStraw Home 7-Cup. Reduces lead, mercury, and chemicals including PFAS (“forever chemicals”), chlorine, herbicides, pesticides, dirt, sand, and cloudiness.Does LifeStraw make all water safe? ›
Yes. All LifeStraw products protect against bacteria and parasites which are the primary concerns during boil water advisories. III, PFAS, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals). To learn more about which filter is right for you, compare all LifeStraw Products here.
How does a purification straw work? ›
All LifeStraw products use a hollow fiber membrane technology. These membranes have microscopic pores that trap bacteria, parasites, and microplastics. Because these contaminants are bigger than the pores in the filter, safe water can pass through.Can LifeStraw prevent cholera? ›
Lifestraw alleviates the spread of cholera and other water borne disease and also eliminates the need to boil drinking water.How long does LifeStraw bottle last? ›
More About This Product. Long-lasting membrane microfilter lasts up to 1,000 gallons (4,000 L) of water - enough drinking water to last an individual for over 5 years!Do you have to clean a LifeStraw? ›
We recommend regularly backwashing your personal water filter straw for optimal filter lifetime. Regularly blow air through your filter after drinking to keep the filter clean and prevent it from clogging.Will LifeStraw work in Mexico? ›
You have to suck the water through the mouthpiece, to make sure it goes through the filter. I used the LifeStraw Go throughout my six months in Mexico, on and off. There were times when I was with family, so they had filtered water. In these instances we just used the bottle as a water bottle.Does LifeStraw remove arsenic? ›
LifeStraw® products do not remove arsenic from water.How do you disinfect LifeStraw? ›
Disinfect. For LifeStraw Go, Universal, Flex and Play, mix ¼ teaspoon of household bleach with 2 cups of clean water and pour solution into bottle/flask, closing the lid when filled. Let stand for 5 minutes. Empty the bottle or container and rinse with new water, shaking the filter.What are the disadvantages of LifeStraw? ›
Benefits and Drawbacks of LifeStraw
The major disadvantages of LifeStraw tend to circulate around the fact that it cannot be used in groups (as it's a personal filter straw), and it's not easy to store water. So, if you're thirsty at an inconvenient time, you'll have no choice but to get up and find a water source.
The LifeStraw Home is the only water filter pitcher that removes bacteria and parasites in addition to lead, microplastics, PFAS (“forever chemicals”), and 30+ contaminants all while dramatically improving the taste of your tap water.How often should you replace LifeStraw filter? ›
Replacing Your LifeStraw Home Activated Carbon and Ion Exchange Filter. Each Activated Carbon and Ion Exchange filter has a lifetime of approximately 40 gallons (150 liters). We recommend changing it every 2 months.
Can you put ice in a LifeStraw water bottle? ›
A: The minimum temperature is 33 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius). Extreme heat or freezing temperatures could damage the LifeStraw filter and impact performance - which means you could get sick if the filter doesn't work due to temperature extremes.Can you freeze LifeStraw? ›
If your LifeStraw has been used, and is then exposed to freezing temperatures, water inside can freeze and crack the filter. You may not see these cracks, so we recommend never letting it freeze once it's been used.