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Groundbreaking Technology Helps Detect Lead in Water

CBS 58— Researchers at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee are developing groundbreaking technology to quickly and accurately detect lead in water.

Right now if you want to test your water for lead you either have to collect a sample and send it to a lab, which is costly and takes time, or use test strips that are quicker but not very reliable.

The new device, created by a team lead by Dr. Junhong Chen, is hand held meter with a  sensor on it that can detect lead with just a drop of water.

“More importantly all the sensors can respond quickly to trace amounts of heavy metals in water in seconds,” said Dr. Chen, a Distinguished Professor Mechanical Engineering at UWM. 

Dr. Chen and his team started developing this sensor technology seven years ago, but the idea to use it to test for lead in water came about more recently. Especially in the wake of the water crisis in Flint and issues with lead water lines at homes and daycares in Milwaukee.

“We see this as a burning issue for society,” Dr. Chen said. “We would like to use our technology to help solve the problem.”

Once a user puts the water on the sensor, the screen will tell you the exact lead content and give you a green light if it's safe, or a red light if it's not.

It's a tool Cudahy Water Superintendent Frank Miller says could be a big leap forward for water utilities.

“It tells us how treatments are working, how well its working and we get information to the consumer a lot faster,” Dr. Chen said. “So if it's accurate and consistent, it's incredible.”

Miller says the device could help monitor water quality during construction projects and find problem areas.

“It would help us identify areas where we have higher lead levels,” Miller said. “So maybe we could target those areas for replacement of the lead lines.”

Kirsten Shead, a community organizer with Milwaukee Water Commons, says her group focuses on raising awareness about lead and finding solutions, but adds testing is important.

“It also seems like they want to test it in a continuous way which could give some kind of insight in to lead levels as they go up and down,” Shead said.

The ultimate goal is to be able to put the sensor on a faucet or in a water meter or filter.

“We are trying to develop this technology in to a continuous flow sensor chip that can monitor the water quality continuously,” Dr. Chen said.

Right now, the device is just a prototype but with tens of thousands of lead water lines in the area, Dr. Chen expects to roll out this device by next year.

“It's a lot of time pressure for us to get this technology to work,” Dr Chen said.

Right now the device costs between $10 and $15, but Dr. Chen says he expects they will be able to make it even more affordable. And he adds this technology can be used to detect other metals and contaminants in water like arsenic or e.coli.

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