Arsenic and new tests

For the past two decades, arsenic contamination of groundwater has posed one of the most serious public health threats in the south Asian nation of Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Compounding the problem over the years has been the costly – and sometimes dangerous – methods of testing water samples.

A 2008 World Health Organization report estimated up to 70 million people in Bangladesh drink water that contains unsafe arsenic levels. Health problems associated with arsenic poisoning include diarrhea, vomiting, convulsions and some types of cancers.

A researcher with the University of Ontario Institute of Institute of Technology (UOIT) is working hard to help develop a new paper-based method of testing water sources in Bangladesh that is both effective and inexpensive.

Brendan MacDonald, an Assistant Professor in UOIT’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, has been recognized for his innovative research approach with a new funding award of $112,000 from Grand Challenges Canada (GCC) through its Stars in Global Health seed grant program.

“Our research team travelled to Bangladesh for nine days at the end of April and early May, and we are getting very positive feedback for the tests we will be developing,” said MacDonald. “Field-test kits used in the past create a multi-stage reaction which can actually generate toxic chemicals. But we know paper works in medical diagnostics such as pregnancy tests. Paper is readily available, inexpensive, easy to use, disposable and does not require an external power source.”

GCC is funded by the Government of Canada and dedicated to supporting bold ideas with big impact in global health. MacDonald’s project is part of GCC’s $12 million new investment in projects worldwide, aimed squarely at improving the health and saving the lives of mothers, newborns and children in developing countries.

A simple, low-cost, paper-based test for arsenic developed by MacDonald’s project will help forewarn people when water’s arsenic content exceeds safe levels.

“We are grateful to Grand Challenges Canada for its generous support of our new approach to quickly identify contaminated water sources, a system we anticipate could be applied anywhere in the future,” said MacDonald. “We believe this is the right way to safely determine the level of arsenic in water sources, prior to human consumption.”

MacDonald is collaborating on the research with Professor Nadim Khandaker, North South University of Bangladesh.

“Our government is proud of the progress on promises Canada and other nations made as part of the Muskoka Initiative to improve the health and save the lives of women, newborns and children in the developing world,” said the Honourable Christian Paradis, Minister of International Development and Minister for La Francophonie. “By supporting innovative proof-of-concept projects and the scale-up of proven ideas, and by leveraging additional private sector knowledge and funds, a difference is being felt in health conditions in developing countries. The creation of jobs here and abroad serves as an added benefit.”

“All of the projects announced today illustrate the power of innovation to save and improve the lives of women and children,” said Peter A. Singer, Chief Executive Officer, GCC.

“Innovation really means that tomorrow will be a brighter day than today for those who need it the most in developing nations. I salute the global leadership Canada is showing in focusing the world’s attention on saving every woman and every child.”


Research Matters periodically publishes multiple blog posts based on a specific theme. This story is part of a series exploring Ontario university research’s impact beyond Canada’s borders. Some stories originally appeared in individual university’s publications, and are republished here with permission.

Tagged: Health, Nature, Technology, Stories

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts


From farm to fork

ORION staff | October 9, 2015

It’s morning. Farmers across Ontario are waking up to tend to their animals. You might be sitting down to a plate of scrambled eggs—maybe even a few strips of bacon. We take it for granted that this food will be safe to eat. But we rarely think about why. That, in part, is thanks to people like University of Guelph systems design engineer Deborah Stacey. Relying on a high-performance computing network, her research helps inform the regulatory structures that ensure our food is free of contamination and that the animals it comes from are healthy. It is, in part, due to her work that we now have modelling programs such as NAADSM, the North American Animal Disease Spread Model. This is the software governments and industry rely on to plan for and prevent epidemics. “NAADSM allows you to put in various scenarios for various animal diseases to see how they would spread,” says Stacey. “My interest is in looking at the network connections within that: contact, moving animals from one herd to another, and licking or touching other animals. I’m interested in how these contact networks differ across industries, which could suggest a different path of disease spread.” This research is then used by organizations such as the Guelph-based Poultry Industry Council to help determine which transportation and feed networks most effectively limit or eliminate things like avian diseases—in other words, how to ensure your scrambled eggs are safe. Stacey’s work produces a staggering amount of data, and it requires a lot of statistical analysis. It’s done through the Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network, or SHARCNET, a consortium of Ontario universities, colleges and research centres using a shared system of distributed high-performance computing, linked together through the ORION network. “Studying these networks made me more aware of how we develop and distribute the food we eat,” Stacey says. “It was surprising to find out how critical these farming systems are, and that they can be understood using mathematical models. These human systems that we’ve evolved are incredibly complex, and it was enlightening to see how much we need to study this—our food safety and security depend on understanding these systems.” A  version of this story was originally published by ORION.  It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission. 
Student studying

Who gets into university

Sharon Oosthoek | September 28, 2015

Nipissing University sociologist David Zarifa studies the educational and labour market experiences of disadvantaged youth, and he has good news and bad news. The good news: access to undergraduate education continues to increase for traditionally disadvantaged students, including those from low-income families or whose parents did not continue past high school. The bad news: at the higher levels — post-graduate and professional programs — the playing field is much less level. Zarifa came to this conclusion after a close examination of Statistics Canada’s National Graduate Survey of the year 2000 cohort. The survey looks at the experience of 35,000 undergraduates who completed various programs across all provinces and territories. Sociologists have long known that social origins can influence a student's educational experience, directly through parents’ level of education and indirectly through student performance, aspirations, and academic confidence. But there is very little research in Canada about how social origins influence professional or graduate school attendance. When Zarifa crunched the Statistics Canada numbers, he found nearly 35 per cent of undergrads whose parents had a master’s or doctorate degree entered a professional or graduate level program. That compares to only about 13 per cent of graduates whose parents did not have a postsecondary education. He also found about 21 per cent of graduates without government-sponsored student loans entered a graduate or professional program, compared to only about 14 per cent of graduates with loans above $15,000. Zarifa says he is discouraged to see parent education still has an impact at the graduate and professional level, even when taking into consideration other important factors such as academic abilities, aspirations and the educational experiences of graduates. "You would hope by the time students have their undergraduate degree, they wouldn't have this disadvantage in carrying on and trying to better their career prospects," he says. He hopes his study draws attention to some of the challenges facing groups from less privileged backgrounds: "While more and more students are continuing on into some form of postsecondary education, not all social groups are accessing the most lucrative segments within the postsecondary system equally."  
immigration canada document

Welcoming newcomers

Robyn Dugas | August 25, 2015

Most research into Canadian immigration focuses on its three largest cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Yet mid-sized cities such as Ottawa are just as dependent on newcomers to maintain populations, boost local economies and offset labour shortages. “Canada’s approach to managing the admission of newcomers is undergoing a fundamental change," says Western University social psychologist Stelian Medianu. "In particular, the new system that is taking shape will lead to greater involvement by employers and by colleges and universities.” But in places such as Ottawa, these organizations may lack the infrastructure and tools to help integrate immigrants. The answer, says Medianu, is interagency collaboration. Settlement agencies have the expertise — so why not bring that expertise to employers, universities and colleges as they help immigrants transition to Canadian society? Connecting with the experts Medianu’s research is just one part of the Pathways to Prosperity Partnership, a nation-wide alliance of university, government and community partners researching the integration of immigrants and minorities in Canada. He is working with an umbrella group representing Ottawa's settlement organizations called Local Agencies Serving Immigrants (LASI) Coalition. With the coalition's help, Medianu is identifying the needs of each stakeholder group: employers, educational institutions, immigrants and international students. He is also researching the most successful initiatives around the world to determine which ones could be put to use in the Ottawa region. His work is part of a year-long Mitacs Accelerate internship. Mitacs is a national non-profit organization that supports research partnerships between universities and partner organizations. Medianu is identifying how each LASI-affiliated settlement group is uniquely suited to furthering immigrant integration. "Each settlement agency has its own capacity and expertise," he says.  "Together they can create suites of services that better match the needs of employers, educational institutions and newcomers.” With that information at hand, Medianu has been  mapping potential partnerships between these settlement groups and the companies and institutions that could benefit from their expertise. At the end of the project, he’ll provide LASI with recommendations and research results that will help its member organizations build fruitful partnerships in the community and, ultimately, provide a streamlined settlement experience for new Canadians in mid-sized cities.

Tracking turtles

Sharon Oosthoek | August 24, 2015

James Paterson spent the spring of 2009 and 2010 hiding behind trees and crouching in the underbrush of Algonquin Park. Thus camouflaged, he allowed himself an occasional peek as he waited patiently for turtles to lay their eggs in the woods. But as soon as they left, he would dash out with a screen to cover the nests and protect the eggs from predators. read more »
Refugee children in settlement camp.

When exile drags on

Araina Bond | August 19, 2015

When James Milner visited Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in November 2001, they had been in place for almost a decade.  The camps are now nearly 25 years old and their occupants — mostly Somalis fleeing civil war and drought — number 350,000, making the camps the largest refugee settlement in the world. read more »
More Blogs »