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American student is designing a sustainable strategy to defluoridate the groundwater drinking supply in rural areas of the Garhwa and Palamu districts

A little bit of fluoride is good for your teeth, but too much can have devastating health consequences. More than 200 million people in 25 nations are affected by the condition, called fluorosis, which damages and destroys teeth and bones.


Princeton civil and environmental engineering graduate student Luke MacDonald is designing a sustainable strategy to defluoridate the groundwater drinking supply in rural areas in the state of Jharkland, India.


While it is relatively easy, technically speaking, to remove fluoride ions from water, implementing a solution presents social, economic and political challenges.


"We have three goals with this project," MacDonald said. "One is to design a new filter to remove fluoride more efficiently and cheaply. The next goal is to set up a program to implement this, and here it becomes a policy project—putting a filter in in India requires you to mobilize communities. The third goal for the project is to characterize the extent of the health problems, to serve as a marker to measure future success."


As part of his research, MacDonald spent 10 weeks in Jharkhand over the course of three visits to assess the situation, start designing and implementing the filters, and conduct the health survey. The Garhwa and Palamu districts where he did his fieldwork are violent regions almost never visited by tourists (the U.S. government cautions that Maoist extremist groups frequently attack state and national authorities in the region).


To learn about previous water-filtration projects, Luke MacDonald visited an arsenic filtration plant in India.


"It's very rare for engineers to get the chance to go out and do some sort of implementation project in an environment like that," MacDonald said. "I had a lot of naive ideas of how I could go about this. The real-world experience has changed how I view everything, changed the way I think about the problems I'm trying to solve."


MacDonald is advised on the project by Peter Jaffe, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. The research team also includes Burton Singer, the Charles and Marie Robertson Professor of Public and International Affairs, and Gopal Pathak, a professor at the Birla Institute of Technology in Ranchi, India. The fluoride work is supported by the ENVIRON Foundation and a Princeton Environmental Institute-Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (PEI-STEP) fellowship.


When he's not in the field, MacDonald is a community associate for the Office of Graduate Student Life, organizing and hosting events, including movie nights and cooking classes.


His interest in environment and society developed while he was an undergraduate student at Northeastern University earning a bachelor's degree in biomedical physics. He enrolled in a sociology course that demonstrated how scientific expertise could be applied to major societal problems, which motivated him to pursue graduate studies in the environmental arena.


"The issue of water is so intensely driven by societal needs and constraints," he said, "and there's an opportunity to have a real-world impact on people and ecosystems."


© Princeton University / Mar 17, 2009


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