Old saris have a second use: They can protect people from a deadly bacteria in water.

For many of us here in the U.S., cholera is something we only know about from a book that we read in high school.

But for millions of people around the world, this disease is a very real threat to their health simply because they don't have access to clean drinking water.

So, what if there were an easy way to filter out cholera-causing bacteria from water?


Image via iStock.

That is exactly the question that marine microbiologist Rita Colwell pondered while she was on a research trip in Bangladesh.

She had been studying the bacterium that causes cholera, called Vibrio cholerae, for decades and had made a series of important discoveries about it with her colleagues. For example, they had learned the bacteria could survive in both fresh- and seawater and that it was the primary bacteria attached to copepods, microscopic crustaceans and plankton that live in water all over the world.

But up until then, their research had focused mostly on the bacteria and the environment where it was found — not on any practical solutions that might help people not get sick.

"It occurred to us, well, my goodness, in all the work we are doing, clearly we could do something for the village families who get cholera," Colwell says.

An electron microscope image of V. cholerae bacteria, which causes cholera. Image via Dartmouth University/Wikimedia Commons.

Cholera is a deadly diarrheal disease caused by the ingestion of contaminated food or water.

While this disease has been rare in the United States for over a century, it is still a serious problem throughout the developing world, including in Bangladesh, where access to clean drinking water can be difficult. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, between 1.3 to 4 million people get sick with cholera every year, and as many as 143,000 people die from it.  

In rural Bangladesh, where Colwell was working, cholera was a serious problem because women would scoop drinking surface water directly from canals, rivers, and lakes. There was no filtration, and there wasn’t enough fuel, like firewood, available for families to boil water every day.

Colwell and her colleagues realized that if they could devise a crude, inexpensive filter to strain the copepods (which the V. cholerae bacteria are attached to) from the water, maybe they could help people protect themselves from the disease.

They started by testing out T-shirt material, but that didn’t work. It was difficult to rinse, it didn’t dry, and a lot of debris in the water got through the weave in the fabric.

Then they tried sari cloth the same cloth that women in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal have worn for thousands of years. It's also a cloth that women in rural Bangladesh already were using to prepare home-brewed drinks.

Sari cloth has been used as traditional clothing for centuries in the region. Image via iStock.

It worked.

The sari fabric, when it was folded four times over the urns used to gather water, created a mesh filter that was effective enough to remove 99% of the bacteria attached to the plankton copepods that cause the cholera.

Not only that, but the cloth could be reused over and over again, making it a very practical and inexpensive solution. That’s because the cloth is light and porous, Colwell explains. "Because it rains — with monsoons — every day [there], the sari cloth is designed to dry quickly. So, what is nice about it is that you can unfold it, rinse it off, and then hang it up. It dries and then you can re-use it."

Colwell and her colleagues taught villagers how to make their own sari filters in 65 rural Bangladeshi villages, and over three years, she says, "we were able to show a 50% reduction in cholera."

Folded four times over a water collection urn, sari cloth can reduce the amount of cholera in drinking water. Image via iStock.

The team returned to the villages five years later and found that news of the filters had spread to other villages. As many as 75% of the population in these villages were using these filters.

And, Colwell says, they discovered something called the "herd effect" taking place — even if villagers weren’t filtering water themselves, fewer people were getting sick because fewer people were shedding the bacteria back into the water. "By virtue of all their neighbors staying healthy because they filtered," she explains, "they were not exposed to the larger numbers of bacteria themselves."

Of course, the filter isn't 100% effective at catching cholera-causing bacteria. Still, Colwell says there is power in this simple solution.

According to UNICEF, 663 million people do not have access to clean water around the world. Not only that, almost 2.4 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation.  

There are a lot of high-tech solutions out there that try to address the problem of access to clean water, she says, and there are a lot of ways to work to combat the spread of cholera. But sometimes, it is the simple, inexpensive solutions — such as the sari filter — that can do a lot of good.

A view of rural Bangladesh. Image via Balaram Mahalder/Wikimedia Commons.

With more education about how the sari can be used, she says, it can make a difference for public health in regions where there isn’t access to clean water. Sari filters could even be useful in the aftermaths of large hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters all over the world, she adds.

Colwell and her colleagues hope to spread the word about sari filters to other places, such as Africa and other regions in Asia, where inexpensive solutions have the potential to make a big impact.

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I'm staring at my screen watching the President of the United States speak before a stadium full of people in North Carolina. He launches into a lie-laced attack on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and the crowd boos. Soon they start chanting, "Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!"

The President does nothing. Says nothing. He just stands there and waits for the crowd to finish their outburst.

WATCH: Trump rally crowd chants 'send her back' after he criticizes Rep. Ilhan Omar www.youtube.com

My mind flashes to another President of the United States speaking to a stadium full of people in North Carolina in 2016. A heckler in the crowd—an old man in uniform holding up a TRUMP sign—starts shouting, disrupting the speech. The crowd boos. Soon they start chanting, "Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!"

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via EarthFix / Flickr

What will future generations never believe that we tolerated in 2019?

Dolphin and orca captivity, for sure. They'll probably shake their heads at how people died because they couldn't afford healthcare. And, they'll be completely mystified at the amount of food some people waste while others go starving.

According to Biological Diversity, "An estimated 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is wasted every year, costing households, businesses and farms about $218 billion annually."

There are so many things wrong with this.

First of all it's a waste of money for the households who throw out good food. Second, it's a waste of all of the resources that went into growing the food, including the animals who gave their lives for the meal. Third, there's something very wrong with throwing out food when one in eight Americans struggle with hunger.

Supermarkets are just as guilty of this unnecessary waste as consumers. About 10% of all food waste are supermarket products thrown out before they've reached their expiration date.

Three years ago, France took big steps to combat food waste by making a law that bans grocery stores from throwing away edible food.According to the new ordinance, stores can be fined for up to $4,500 for each infraction.

Previously, the French threw out 7.1 million tons of food. Sixty-seven percent of which was tossed by consumers, 15% by restaurants, and 11% by grocery stores.

This has created a network of over 5,000 charities that accept the food from supermarkets and donate them to charity. The law also struck down agreements between supermarkets and manufacturers that prohibited the stores from donating food to charities.

"There was one food manufacturer that was not authorized to donate the sandwiches it made for a particular supermarket brand. But now, we get 30,000 sandwiches a month from them — sandwiches that used to be thrown away," Jacques Bailet, head of the French network of food banks known as Banques Alimentaires, told NPR.

It's expected that similar laws may spread through Europe, but people are a lot less confident at it happening in the United States. The USDA believes that the biggest barrier to such a program would be cost to the charities and or supermarkets.

"The logistics of getting safe, wholesome, edible food from anywhere to people that can use it is really difficult," the organization said according to Gizmodo. "If you're having to set up a really expensive system to recover marginal amounts of food, that's not good for anybody."

Plus, the idea may seem a little too "socialist" for the average American's appetite.

"The French version is quite socialist, but I would say in a great way because you're providing a way where they [supermarkets] have to do the beneficial things not only for the environment, but from an ethical standpoint of getting healthy food to those who need it and minimizing some of the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that come when food ends up in a landfill," Jonathan Bloom, the author of American Wasteland, told NPR.

However, just because something may be socialist doesn't mean it's wrong. The greater wrong is the insane waste of money, damage to the environment, and devastation caused by hunger that can easily be avoided.

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