Magazine Feature / People

Visiting scholar battles Nepalese health disaster

Women’s College Visiting Scholar Linda Smith, founder of Filters for Families, is leading a crusade to provide rural villages in Nepal with simple filters designed to reduce the amount of arsenic in drinking water.

In the late 1990s, arsenic was discovered in Nepal’s groundwater. The World Health Organization classifies this as the worst natural disaster in human history impacting more than 450 million people in the region from Nepal to Bangladesh. Arsenic causes keratosis, which eventually progresses to gangrene, the loss of fingers and toes, and even cancer.

Smith, a geoscientist with years of experience in the oil and gas industries, became aware of the problem when she was doing research on arsenic through a Fulbright award at a Nepalese University. After a visit to a student’s village, where the majority of the people were suffering from arsenic poisoning, Smith started Filters for Families.

“I was devastated,” Smith says. She personally purchased filters and vitamins for the villagers and arranged to return to Nepal with funding from a National Science Foundation grant and private donors.

Filters for Families provides educational workshops in Nepalese villages, explaining the consequences of arsenic poisoning and teaching families how to use and maintain arsenic biosand filters.

MIT students developed the filters, which are made by local craftspeople using local materials. The filters just cost $20 and each remove bacteria and more than 96 percent of the arsenic. With a flow rate of 15–25 liters per hour, the filters provide sufficient flow for a large family. Since 2001, Smith’s group has distributed more than 1,200 filters, helping more than 13,000 people.

Smith is DU’s Women’s College first visiting scholar. She teaches a course on “Victorian Women Explorers” during the fall term that examines the geology, history, art and culture of countries visited by women such as Florence Nightingale.

In January, Smith will return to Nepal to train local nonprofits and women’s groups to extend the work of Filters for Families.

Smith presented a talk, “Research with Heart: Arsenic Research and Mitigation in Nepal,” on Nov. 13, in the Chambers Center Garden Room.

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