DANGEROUS WATER: After Flint changed water sources, tap water became visibly discolored and contained high levels of lead.

NI ‘JOYE’ ZHU/FLINTWATERSTUDY.ORG

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS1.A    

CCSS: Literacy in Science: 9    

TEKS: 6.2E, 7.2E, 8.2E, C.2I

Testing the Waters

After taps in Flint, Michigan, turned toxic, a student invented a device to ensure water is safe for all

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: Why is access to clean, safe drinking water important?

Four years ago, the city of Flint, Michigan, switched water sources for its 100,000 residents in an effort to save money. But local officials did not have the new water treated correctly. When scientists later performed lab tests on Flint’s water in response to concerns expressed by residents, they found dangerous levels of lead (Pb). This toxic element can cause serious health problems. The crisis in Flint motivated 12-year-old Gitanjali Rao to design a device that can detect lead in water.

“Seeing how many people were affected by lead in their drinking water was appalling,” says Gitanjali, who lives in Lone Tree, Colorado. “It was scary to think about being in their shoes. I wanted to find a way to help.”

Gitanjali’s device tests for lead much faster than sending samples to a lab for analysis. It also gives more detailed results than current home-testing methods. For her innovative idea, Gitanjali won the top prize in the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a contest open to students in grades 5 to 8.

Four years ago, the city of Flint, Michigan, changed water sources for its 100,000 residents. The move was an effort to save money. But local officials did not have the new water treated correctly. Later, scientists did lab tests on Flint’s water because residents were worried. They found dangerous levels of lead (Pb), a toxic element that can cause serious health problems. Twelve-year-old Gitanjali Rao heard about the crisis in Flint. It moved her to design a device that detects lead in water.

Gitanjali lives in Lone Tree, Colorado. “Seeing how many people were affected by lead in their drinking water was appalling,” she says. “It was scary to think about being in their shoes. I wanted to find a way to help.”

Samples can be sent to a lab for testing, but Gitanjali’s device tests for lead much faster. It also gives more detailed results than today’s home-testing methods. For her clever idea, Gitanjali won the top prize in the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. This contest is for students in grades 5 to 8.

TOXIC WATERS

Like many people across the U.S., Gitanjali’s family watched with concern as the crisis in Flint unfolded. Soon after Flint switched water supplies, discolored water started flowing from taps. For months, local officials told residents that the water was safe—but it wasn’t.

Water from the new source, the Flint River, had a different chemistry than the old water supply. The river water was more acidic, or corrosive. It ate away at Flint’s old lead pipes, releasing the toxic metal into the water. After much public outcry, the federal government declared a state of emergency for Flint, and the state began supplying residents with bottled water (see Ongoing Crisis).

Gitanjali’s family watched with concern as the Flint crisis played out. So did many other people across the country. Soon after Flint changed water supplies, the water coming from taps changed color. For months, local officials told residents that the water was safe—but it wasn’t.

The Flint River was the new source. Its water had a different chemistry than the old water supply. The river water was more acidic, or corrosive. It ate away at Flint’s old lead pipes. This released the toxic metal into the water. After much public outcry, the federal government declared a state of emergency for Flint. The state began giving residents bottled water (see Ongoing Crisis).

KATHRYN SCOTT/DENVER POST VIA GETTY IMAGES (LEFT); DISCOVERY EDUCATION/ANDY KING (RIGHT)

WATER TESTER: Gitanjali Rao explains her lead-detection system, called Tethys.

Lead exposure is dangerous, particularly for children. It can affect brain development, leading to learning and behavior problems. It can also damage internal organs and weaken muscles and bones, slowing growth.

Gitanjali’s family wondered about their water. Her parents, both engineers, bought test strips to check samples from their tap. The strips change color in the presence of lead, but the results weren’t very clear or informative. That got Gitanjali thinking about whether there might be a better way to test for lead.

Contact with lead is dangerous, especially for children. It can affect brain development. This leads to learning and behavior problems. It can also hurt internal organs and weaken muscles and bones, slowing growth.

Gitanjali’s family wondered about their own water. Her parents are both engineers. They bought test strips to check samples from their tap. The strips change color when lead is present. But the results weren’t very clear and didn’t reveal much. That got Gitanjali thinking. Might there be a better way to test for lead?

JAKE MAY/THE FLINT JOURNAL/AP PHOTO (LEFT); RYAN GARZA/DETROIT FREE PRESS/ZUMAPRESS.COM (RIGHT)

  • TOXIC SAMPLES: A Flint resident holds up a bottle of tap water during a 2016 protest calling attention to the problem.
  • SAFETY PRECAUTION: To reduce lead exposure, a Flint resident heats bottled water for her children’s baths.

INVENTOR AT WORK

One day, Gitanjali came across a news story from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers there had developed sensors that could detect toxic gases in air. They created the sensors using carbon nanotubes—microscopic cylinders made of the element carbon (C). Gitanjali wondered if a similar sensor could detect lead in water (see Lead Detector).

Gitanjali developed a plan for a device based on nanotube sensors, built a cardboard model of it, and entered her proposed invention in the Young Scientist Challenge. Finalists are partnered with a scientist who helps them develop their idea further. After being selected, Gitanjali was assigned Kathleen Shafer, a chemist at 3M, as her project mentor. “Gitanjali’s passion and desire to make a difference stood out from the start,” says Shafer.

One day, Gitanjali saw a news story from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers there had developed sensors that could detect toxic gases in air. They made the sensors using carbon nanotubes. These are microscopic cylinders made of the element carbon (C). Gitanjali wondered if a sensor like that could detect lead in water (see Lead Detector).

Gitanjali formed a plan for a device made with nanotube sensors. She made a cardboard model of it and entered her idea in the Young Scientist Challenge. Finalists team up with a scientist who helps them work on their idea. Gitanjali was chosen, and Kathleen Shafer became her project mentor. Shafer is a chemist at 3M. “Gitanjali’s passion and desire to make a difference stood out from the start,” she says.

Gitanjali spent three months turning her concept, named Tethys after the Greek goddess of water, into a working model. She used a 3-D printer, which builds up layers of material, to create a plastic frame for her device. She wired the internal electronics and discussed with a manufacturer how to produce the specialized nanotubes for the lead sensors. Finally, she programmed a smartphone app that would interface with Tethys to display its test results.

Gitanjali named her idea Tethys, after the Greek goddess of water. She spent three months turning it into a working model. She used a 3-D printer to build up layers of material. That’s how she made a plastic frame. She wired the electronics inside her device. To learn about making the nanotubes for the lead sensors, she talked with a manufacturer. Finally, she programmed a smartphone app. It would connect with Tethys to show its test results.

PERSEVERANCE PAYS OFF

One roadblock Gitanjali ran up against was finding a way to test her device. Lead can be dangerous, so she needed to work at a facility where it could be handled and disposed of properly. She contacted university labs asking to conduct tests. “But most places don’t want a 12-year-old to do that,” she says.

Gitanjali looked for a way to test her device, but she ran into a problem. Lead can be dangerous. She needed to work at a place where it could be handled and disposed of properly. She contacted university labs and asked to do tests. “But most places don’t want a 12-year-old to do that,” she says.

DISCOVERY EDUCATION/ANDY KING

Gitanjali Rao

Even so, the competition judges were so impressed with Gitanjali’s progress that they named her America’s Top Young Scientist last October. Soon after, Gitanjali got in touch with technicians at the Denver Water Department, who invited her to conduct lead testing at their facility. She’s been visiting the lab once a week ever since to continue improving Tethys.

“I’m comparing results from my device with the results from expensive lead-testing machines in the lab,” says Gitanjali. “And I’m looking at how different concentrations of lead affect the sensor, so the results can be as detailed and accurate as possible.”

Even so, competition judges were very impressed with Gitanjali’s progress. They named her America’s Top Young Scientist last October. Soon after, Gitanjali got in touch with technicians at the Denver Water Department. They said she could do lead testing at their lab. Since then, she’s been visiting the lab once a week to keep making Tethys better.

“I’m comparing results from my device with the results from expensive lead-testing machines in the lab,” says Gitanjali. “And I’m looking at how different concentrations of lead affect the sensor, so the results can be as detailed and accurate as possible.”

DISCOVERY EDUCATION/ANDY KING

HELPING HAND: Gitanjali (left) with project mentor Kathleen Shafer

FLINT AND BEYOND?

Once she’s finished testing Tethys, Gitanjali hopes to make the device widely available. That way anyone worried about water quality can test for lead. Sadly, Flint isn’t the only place in the U.S. at risk from lead-contaminated water because of aging lead pipes and fixtures.

In 2016, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that more than 5,300 municipal water systems, which supply water to 18 million Americans, violated federal rules for lead testing of drinking water. Those violations included high lead levels, improper monitoring, failure to report test results, and failure to address pipe corrosion. An investigation by the news organization Reuters the following year found more than 3,800 U.S. communities whose rates of childhood lead poisoning were double that of Flint at the peak of its crisis.

A device like Tethys could help people check the safety of their water. And pooling results from many home tests could help identify the places in most urgent need of help, says Gitanjali. Shafer, her project mentor, couldn’t be more proud: “Gitanjali’s work is a powerful example of the role of science in developing solutions that can improve our world.”

After Gitanjali finishes testing Tethys, she hopes to make the device easy to get. Then anyone worried about water quality can test for lead. Sadly, Flint isn’t the only place in the U.S. at risk. Many other places have old lead pipes and fixtures that can release lead into water.

In 2016, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report. They found that more than 5,300 municipal water systems broke federal rules for lead testing of drinking water. These systems supply water to 18 million Americans. Some systems had high lead levels. Others didn’t monitor properly, didn’t report test results, or didn’t fix corroded pipes. The next year, the news organization Reuters found high rates of childhood lead poisoning in more than 3,800 U.S. communities. These rates were double that of Flint at its worst.

A device like Tethys could help people check the safety of their water. The results from many home tests could be put together to show which places need help the most, says Gitanjali. Shafer, her project mentor, couldn’t be more proud. She says, “Gitanjali’s work is a powerful example of the role of science in developing solutions that can improve our world.”