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Filtering A New Idea: A Book That's Educational And 'Drinkable'

May 17, 2014
Originally published on May 17, 2014 10:32 pm

From the outside, "The Drinkable Book" looks like a normal book. It's about an inch or two thick, with 20 pages. But these pages do a lot more than convey information. Each page also serves as a water filter, a valuable tool for preventing waterborne illness in the developing world. Globally, about 3.4 million people die each year from water-related diseases.

"A lot of water issues aren't just because people don't have the right technology, but also because they aren't informed why they need to treat water to begin with," says Theresa Dankovich, the chemist who developed the filter paper. "So I really like the educational component, and it's very nice to store it in a book."

The pages are about a millimeter thick and contain silver nanoparticles. The silver can rid the water of harmful microbes, but has very little effect on humans.

"Essentially the microbes come in contact with silver in the paper and as a result they are killed by the interaction and the water is clean for us to drink," she says.

To use the book, you rip one of the pages in half, slide it into the filter box (which doubles as a cover for the book) and pour contaminated water through. After a few minutes, the bacteria is reduced by 99.9 percent and is comparable to U.S. tap water.

Dankovich has been working on this paper for years. The book came together when an ad agency designer got wind of the technology. The ad agency, DDB, linked Dankovich's technology with WATERisLIFE, one of its clients. And the drinkable book was born.

The water safety tips, printed in nontoxic ink, include washing your hands before eating and keeping trash away from your water source. That information will be printed in English and local languages.

"Our main goal is to reduce the spread of diarrheal diseases, which result from drinking water that's been contaminated with things like E. coli and cholera and typhoid," Dankovich says. "And we think we can help prevent some of these illnesses from even happening."

The books cost just a few dollars to make; each piece of filter paper costs about 10 cents. The filters can last a couple of weeks, even up to a month. So the entire books could provide the tools to filter clean water for about a year.

Dankovich tested the paper in South Africa last year. This fall she'll take the drinkable books to Ghana for more tests and feedback.

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. Some futurists have predicted that one day we will no longer read books. At least, not physical books. Lots of us have already made that transition to eBooks read on Kindle's and iPad's and other tablets. But here's a book that will never have an electronic version, that would defeat the purpose.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Introducing the Drinkable Book. The first ever tool that teaches safe water habits and is printed on technologically advanced filter paper capable of killing deadly waterborne diseases.

VIGELAND: That's a clip from a promotional video by Water is Life, the nonprofit behind a drinkable book. From the outside, it looks a lot like your average book, an inch or two thick with 20 pages. But each page serves as two water filters. Theresa Dankovich is the chemist who developed the filter paper.

THERESA DANKOVICH: The filters are basically thick sheets of paper that contain silver nanoparticles. And silver is a very toxic metal for microbes, but not for humans. There's very little effect on humans from silver. So essentially the microbes come in contact with silver in the paper and as a result they are killed by the interaction and then the water is clean for us to drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The book itself works in three easy steps. Simply tear out a filter, slide it into the custom filter box and pull contaminated water through.

VIGELAND: It removes 99.9 percent of bacteria in drinking water, making the end product comparable to U.S. tap water. Dankovich has been working on the paper for years. The book came together when an ad agency got wind of the technology. That agency, DDB, introduced Dankovich to the nonprofit Water is Life, and the drinkable book was born.

DANKOVICH: A lot of water issues aren't just because people don't have the right technology but because they aren't informed of why they need to treat water to begin with. So I really like the educational component and it's just very nice to store it in a book.

VIGELAND: Each book has tips about water safety printed in nontoxic ink. Wash your hands before eating. Keep trash away from your water source. It will be printed in English and local languages.

DANKOVICH: Our main goal is to reduce the spread of diarrheal diseases which result from drinking water that's been contaminated with things like E. coli and cholera and typhoid. And these diseases cause the death of 3.4 million people every year in developing countries, so it's a big deal. And we think that we can help prevent some of these illnesses from even happening.

VIGELAND: Each filter costs about 10 cents to make and can last a couple of weeks, even up to a month so one book potentially provides tools to filter water for about a year. Dankovich is hoping to make it a staple in places without access to clean water.

DANKOVICH: That will take a lot of work, but I feel like we have a good shot.

VIGELAND: Dankovich tested the paper in South Africa last year. This fall she'll take the drinkable books to Ghana to get a read on how they work. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.