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University of Victoria collaborates with Georgia researcher on cellphone arsenic tester

Invention could bring single-use tests from $20 to pennies while avoiding harmful chemicals
University of Victoria (Black Press Media file photo)

The remote environment of the pandemic resulting in some amount of existential dread for local business has nonetheless sustained the need for global research collaboration in Victoria.

This 12th year of the Mitacs Globalink internship sees Fulbright Canada scholar and Georgia Institute of Technology chemical engineer Andrea Green assisting the University of Victoria in the development of arsenic-water detectors that are compatible with cell phones.

Tasteless and odourless arsenic causes blood vessel damage, thickening of the skin and cancer following heavy or lifetime exposure, typically ingested through food or water, according to a report by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Carcinogen Exposure Canada estimates 25,000 workers per year are exposed to the natural element, while the Cowichan Tribes reported traces of it in their water, even after the Indigenous community connected to Duncan’s water system in 2018.

By comparison, arsenic poisoning is the cause of 20 per cent of deaths annually in the country of Bangladesh.

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Green, 29, is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and National Society of Black Engineers who is working on the project remotely from her home in Atlanta. She has joined UVic civil engineering professor Heather Buckley’s lab to conduct a survey of existing arsenic detection sensors. Only after identifying the current sensors’ gaps and limitations can their lab invent a cheaper, portable and home-based testing kit.

Their planned approach involves vials that change colour in the presence of arsenic.

“A phone camera should be able to know, for example, that if the sample turns blue, arsenic is present and if it stays yellow, the water is safe to drink,” Buckley said. It should also be much cheaper; current single-use kits start around $20 USD, while the kit being developed at UVic could cost pennies.

READ ALSO: Researcher focused on simple way to test drinking water

The international research collaboration between the Georgia Institute of Technology and UVic is one of 1,075 facilitated by Mitacs Globalink this year. Students from Brazil, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong and half a dozen other countries are participating in worldwide projects in healthcare, robotics, technology and environmental sectors.

“Being in this program has allowed me to see the slight cultural differences between all of us and appreciate those differences,” Green said. Despite not yet having travelled abroad, she now hopes to earn her PhD at a Canadian institution.

“One of the main reasons I chose to take part in the program was to talk with people from other countries and I would be very willing and happy to one day be part of a global effort to detect arsenic in water. Just as the world came together to fight COVID-19, I believe it can be done.”

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