Bay Area start-up creates filtration system for arsenic-concentrated water

LIVERMORE, Calif. (KGO) -- As the drought focuses new attention on California's well water, a Bay Area start-up has come up with a way to make that water safer to drink, especially for small communities that don't have an alternative.

Gazing out over the peaceful landscape of East Contra Costa County, it might be hard to imagine a health threat hidden under the golden hills. But like much of the Central Valley, groundwater here can contain natural concentrations of arsenic.

"We know that it is a chronic toxin, that it accumulates in your body over time. And you can get very, very sick," engineer John Pujol says.

Pujol is on a mission to make well water safer to drink by removing arsenic with a revolutionary technology. The system is known as ECAR -- Electrochemical Arsenic Remediation. It's designed to work in small communities that don't have the resources for an expensive filtration plant.

"A lot of the existing technologies out there require extensive operational processes, hazardous chemicals, high energy, things which are not cheap," Pujol explains.

The ECAR prototype was originally developed at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Now, with a $100,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Pujol's company, SimpleWater, is hoping to bring an affordable commercial version to California.

Project engineer Laura Chimelski showed ABC7 News a scaled-up unit now being tested north of Livermore.

It uses a combination of electricity and iron panels to create a form of rust that binds with arsenic in the water. The residue settles in a separation tank, leaving the rest of the water essentially arsenic-free. A quick sample test can confirm the purity.

"This is post-treatment," Chimelski says, showing the test result. "And it says it's around zero."

They say the technology can purify small water systems for about 10 cents on the dollar of what larger-scale systems cost.

Tom Kosic manages the water system for a local development on Morgan Territory Road. He says the price point is critical.

"We've looked at several technologies, and to implement those here for our community would be quite costly. Initial estimates for some pilot systems have been on the order of $100,000 a year," Kosic says.

SimpleWater is hoping to prove the technology in California first, then move to other areas hard hit by arsenic, which has been linked to both cancer and lung disease.

"Michigan, Ohio, Maine, New Hampshire. It's an opportunity to help a lot of people," Pujol says.

The filtration technology could also have a major impact overseas. Prototype systems have already been tested in places like India and Bangladesh.

Written and produced by Tim Didion
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