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Texas A&M Provides Silver Filters

By Clair Lavender

When most people think of life without running water, they imagine distinct, far-away lands where people have to walk 15 miles in the blazing heat to get their home's water supply. However, this lifestyle is closer than most may think.

On the Texas border, along the Rio Grande River, there is a group of small communities known as The Colonias. It is in this area that more than half a million people live without running water in their homes.

Marissa Muñoz, an education graduate student, has visited The Colonias several times.

"They may or may not have paved roads, running water, sewage, electricity, a community center, et cetera," Muñoz said.

It is a common misconception that the people in The Colonias are illegal immigrants, Muñoz said. She emphasized that studies have shown that 90 percent of the people living there are U.S. citizens.

When B. Stephen Carpenter, an associate professor in the Teaching, Learning and Culture program, heard about The Colonias, he teamed up with Oscar Muñoz, the deputy director of The Colonias Program in the center for housing and urban development at A&M.

The two stumbled upon the pre-existing concept of a water filter made from 50 percent clay and 50 percent sawdust and struck proverbial gold. They contacted "Potters for Peace," a group that travels around the world working with local communities and distributing the water filter.

Carpenter and Muñoz recruited Richard Wukich, an art professor in Slippery Rock, Pa., Manny Hernandez, an art professor at Northern Illinois University, to help as consultants and technical advisors, and Bryan Boulanger, an assistant professor in the Zachary Department of Civil Engineering and part of the Environmental Water Resources Division at A&M. In addition to the professional consults on board, four graduate students have joined the program, including Muñoz.

Since the TAMU Water Project began, the team has gained support from many organizations and grant programs. The Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts at A&M, as well as the Mexican American and U.S. Latino Research Center, have provided generous grants that have aided in the production of the filters.

Carpenter travels four to six times a year on request, speaking about the filters and a plan for bettering the communities in The Colonias and other parts of the world.

Carpenter said the effects of the filters in the Dominican Republic have been immense.

"They hired people and let them make money by creating these filters," he said. "It's a micro-enterprise – an economic benefit."

The Water Project team has created 50 cone-shaped filters, mostly for demonstration. Carpenter said that besides the clay and sawdust, "the filters contain colloidal silver , which renders inert bacteria and other microbes."

The silver makes the filters more expensive, but is a key ingredient for producing potable water. The filters are being tested to see how effective they will be in filtering out poisons like arsenic and sulfur.

Carpenter hopes to build a ceramic studio on the Riverside campus to get the A&M community more involved and to strengthen the outpour of filters. The team hopes to build a facility in Laredo but for now, the team meets for "Filter Fridays" in Carpenter's garage, from which they take the filters to "Joy Pottery" in Bryan to fire the water filters.

The filter costs about $25 to create and comes with a five-gallon bucket big enough to hold the filter, a spicket to get the clean water out and a lid.

"We are hoping that some non-government organizations will purchase the filters and then we can distribute them for free," Carpenter said.

In his curriculum development and arts education research classes, Carpenter shares his story and concerns about water issues with his students. A couple of years ago, Carpenter brought in guest speakers Hernandez and Wukich to give a presentation to the class.

Students used information gleaned from the speakers in presentations they gave to their classmates over water, poverty and the artists' response based on the water filter project. The students also created curriculums.

Carpenter edited some of the projects and posted them on the TAMU Water Project blog for other teachers to download and use.

Schools from Virginia, Louisiana and Pennsylvania have shown the desire to use the curriculum in their classrooms.

"It teaches my students how to take real world experiences and look at them as educational experiences," Carpenter said.

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