Clean Water for the Global Greater Good

Jonathan Peterson, Ph.D.
Lavern ’39 and Betty DePree ’41 Van Kley Professor of
Geological and Environmental Sciences

If you’ve gone backpacking, you may be familiar with Sawyer point-of-use water filters — small, easy-to-use devices that allow outdoor enthusiasts to drink water safely from streams and other natural sources. But how well do they work, really? And not just in the United States, where their use is primarily recreational, but in countries where water filters are an absolute necessity for everyday life?

Dr. Jonathan Peterson and two of his Hope College colleagues are investigating the efficacy of Sawyer Corporation water filters — with the goal of helping to improve drinking water quality in less developed nations around the world.

His collaborators are geneticist Dr. Aaron Best, chemist Dr. Mike Pikaart and 24 students. “It’s a classic liberal arts research project because it’s interdisciplinary and it is addressing many different aspects of the problem,” Peterson says. “Students are observing scholars working together and learning from one another. You can’t lecture that.”

First, Peterson and his colleagues send Sawyer water filter kits to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in communities in 30 countries, including Kenya, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Costa Rica and Senegal. (Sawyer reports its filters are used in 80 countries worldwide.) NGO employees use the filters to make local water drinkable, and then ship the used filters back to Hope College. On campus, the research team examines them to find out what the filters contain.

“We remove the captured material and categorize three components: suspended load (that is, the solid particles which were in in the water); the bacterial population; and the dissolved metals in the water,” explains Peterson, whose past research on pharmaceutical contamination of groundwater dovetails well with this project.

Sawyer Corporation will use the data to fine-tune its products. The manufacturer supported this research with grants in 2017 and 2018.

Lab analysis at Hope also expands environmental scientists’ knowledge about what’s in the water at each test site. “We’re collecting a huge data set on the water that’s there,” Peterson reports.

The team also is gathering information on antibacterial contamination in the water and conducting an epidemiological health study in collaboration with statistician Dr. Nathan Tintle, a former Hope professor who now teaches at Dordt College in Iowa.

The group presented its research at the Geological Society of America conference in November 2018, where Peterson and Best chaired a special session dedicated to global water. They will also publish their findings related to particulates, bacteria, heavy metals and epidemiology.