Imagine you grab a cup of water to drink, and it’s so murky that you can’t even see through it. Would you drink it?
For many people around the world, this isn’t a hypothetical question because they don’t have a choice.
Right now, 663 million people around the world don't have access to clean drinking water. Some live in rural areas where there is no centralized water system or water treatment plant, meaning that they rely on local river or lake water. Others live in areas still recovering from a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or flood, and the water is contaminated.
Faced with no other water source, they are forced to drink the water they have access to — even if it could lead to sickness or serious diseases, such as cholera or typhoid.
But what if there were an easy — and affordable — way to purify even the most contaminated water and make it clean enough to drink? Well, it turns out there is.
In 1999, Phil Souter, a chemist and an associate director of research and development at P&G, was working on a project to effectively recycle laundry water when he had an idea. He wanted to create a powder packet — like a detergent — that could scrub cloudy and dirty water of anything harmful and turn it into safe drinking water.
So he put together a proposal, got it approved, and went to work.
"What I was trying to do was miniaturize what takes place in water treatment plants," he explains, "and miniaturize that into a packet that a consumer could easily use, that wasn’t expensive, and that was a bit of a one-size-fits-all so that it could literally treat any source of drinking water."
Creating such a solution was no easy feat.
To be successful, the packet would need to be able to kill off any and all bacteria and small parasites found in all kinds of different water sources, from lakes and rivers to wells and flood waters, while also being able to remove heavy metals and other harmful chemicals.
And it would need to do this in an inexpensive, timely way (because who wants to sit around for hours waiting for a drink of water?). Of course, the new, clearer water would also need to taste good (not like a bunch of chemicals — yuck). Plus, all of the steps to do this would have to fit into a small sachet — no special equipment allowed. Oh, and it also would need to have a decent shelf life so that it could be distributed without expiring before it even got there.
"So really, there were a lot of technical challenges to solve," Souter says.
But after a little over two years of testing and development, Souter and his team created a powder that could do everything it needed to do.
It's called the P&G Purifier of Water sachet.
Just 4 grams of the powder can clean up to 10 liters (2.6 gallons) of dirty water in just 30 minutes. The purifying packets are about the size of a teabag, and they have a shelf life of three years, meaning that it is easy to stockpile them in places that need them.
The best part? The water purification process could not be simpler: All you need is the packet, a bucket of water, a stick, and a cloth.
Here's how it works:
First, you stir the water and powder for five minutes so that harmful things — such as heavy metals, parasites, and dirt — are pulled out from the water and they coagulate together to form small insoluble particles. The water immediately starts to look clearer.
Then you let the water settle for five minutes. This is when all those small particles clump together — in a process called flocculation — to form bigger, heavier particles that fall to the bottom of the water container.
Once all the clumps have settled, you can strain the water with a piece of cloth or fabric as you pour it into a new, fresh container.
Then you let the water sit for 20 minutes while the water disinfects and kills any remaining bacteria and viruses. After that, the clean water is drinkable (and it can be stored for later).
So far, the water purification packets have been incredibly helpful in addressing water crises and shortages all over the world.
The packets remove more than 99.9% of common waterborne bacteria, viruses, and protozoa (microbial organisms) from water, and they have helped reduce the incidence of diarrheal disease by up to 90%.
"For those rural communities that don’t have access to a sustained water solution — like a pipe system — these packets are an excellent solution that can be a bridge to those more permanent options for communities," says Allison Tummon-Kamphuis, manager of P&G’s Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program. They can also make a big difference after a natural disaster.
Since the packets were created, P&G has worked with 150 different partners around the world — including CARE, ChildFund, PSI, Save the Children, and World Vision — to provide 11 billion liters of clean water to those in need.
And the company is continuing to scale up work to help distribute the packets to even more places that need them. In fact, the packets were named one of the world’s most impactful innovations in 2012.
The packets are having a particularly important role in improving the health of children around the world. "I meet so many little girls around the world — I have two daughters myself," Tummon-Kamphuis says, "and to meet young girls who have all sorts of dreams and seeing them have some of the barriers removed that would have gotten in the way of them achieving them is very memorable to me. And it’s not just young girls. It’s boys as well."
While Souter has moved on to other research and development projects at P&G, he still remains proud of the work that he did on bringing these packets into the world.
"My work on this project has been a source of both personal pride and humble understanding," he said in 2012, "as I've come to realize that every once in a while, life puts us in a position — opens to us a door — to make a difference."