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Analytical Chemistry

Movers And Shakers

C&EN profiles Chemists Without Borders, the humanitarian chemistry organization

Nearly all-volunteer organization achieves big impact in developing world with shoestring budget

by Celia Henry Arnaud
September 12, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 36

Photo of a paper analytical device with multiple lanes for doing colorimetric tests.
Credit: Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame
Paper analytical devices can identify potentially adulterated or fake drugs from their color bar codes.

It all started with a letter published in Chemical & Engineering News and an error in translation.

In September 2004, Bego Gerber wrote a letter in response to a story that mentioned a carbohydrate vaccine for typhoid that was languishing for want of a company to produce it. In that letter, he urged chemists to take up the cause of the vaccine to help get it commercialized. “Could this be our ‘Chemists Without Frontiers,’ à la ‘Médicins Sans Frontières?’ ” he wrote, incorrectly translating the French name of the organization Doctors Without Borders. The rest, as they say, is history.

Chemists Without Borders at a glance

Year founded: 2005

Mission statement: “Chemists Without Borders solves humanitarian problems by mobilizing the resources and expertise of the global chemistry community and its networks.”

Number of members: ~700 on mailing list; ~50 active volunteers on projects

Annual budget: Ranges from ~$5,000 to $15,000

Projects: Clean drinking water in Bangladesh; chemistry education materials in Sierra Leone; safe pharmaceuticals in Africa

Steve Chambreau contacted Gerber and asked, “Don’t you mean Chemists Without Borders?” Of course, that’s what he meant, and together they decided to start such an organization. Volunteers from the organization, Chemists Without Borders (CWB), described its activities at a symposium sponsored by the Division of Analytical Chemistry at last month’s American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia.

By the time Gerber and Chambreau got themselves organized, the vaccine that inspired Gerber’s letter was being manufactured by a company in India. So they went looking for other projects. Chambreau wanted to focus on clean drinking water in Bangladesh, where much of the groundwater contains high concentrations of arsenic from surrounding geological formations.

The organization has branched out from there with a project for developing green chemistry educational materials and lab kits for schools in Sierra Leone and another for ensuring safe pharmaceuticals in Africa. And they are doing this on a shoestring budget funded mostly by the growing organization’s membership.

CWB remains small but is growing rapidly. The organization’s only paid staff member is the program manager in Bangladesh. Everybody else is a volunteer. Approximately 700 people have signed up to be on the organization’s mailing list, but only about 50 are directly involved in projects. Many of the members have never met in person. They meet virtually via twice-monthly conference calls that all members are welcome to participate in, Gerber said. The members of the individual project teams meet regularly by Skype.

CWB’s most mature project is about safe drinking water. As part of that project, the organization has constructed two wells that provide clean drinking water to about 4,000 students at high schools outside Chittagong, Bangladesh. The first one was built in February at Sitakunda High School. The other was installed at Teriail High School in June. The wells cost about $2,500 each.

“It costs very little per student, only about $1.25 per student for the wells we have constructed so far,” Ray Kronquist, the current president of CWB, told C&EN. And, he pointed out, those wells will provide clean water for years. The organization is now trying to identify at least eight other schools to provide wells for. It is also looking for individuals or organizations who would like to sponsor the well project at those schools.

Besides well-building, the group is educating students in Bangladesh about the hazards of arsenic in drinking water. By targeting students, CWB hopes to reach their families, as well. The program provides water filters, test kits, and training to high school students in affected areas. Volunteers developed and validated the testing protocol, which has been translated into the Bengali language.

As part of the arsenic project, CWB is trying to produce “penny per test” kits for measuring arsenic. Chris Lizardi, a chemist at ChemTel Inc. and a volunteer with CWB, described the project at the Philadelphia symposium.

The arsenic test is based on the Gutzeit-Marsh reaction, in which zinc and sulfamic acid convert inorganic arsenic to arsine gas that then reacts with mercuric bromide crystals on a test paper to give a yellowish-brown color. The current cost is about $0.48 per test. The ultimate goal is $0.01. The next step is putting together a pilot study in which students at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh make and use the test, Lizardi said.

In addition to arsenic in water, CWB is also concerned about arsenic in rice. The source of the arsenic in rice varies with location. In some places, it’s a naturally occurring contaminant in the water. In other places, it comes from previous uses of the land, such as industry or cotton farming.

Julian Tyson, an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is heading up the arsenic-in-rice project. He is working with undergraduates at UMass to develop a detection method based on commercially available test kits that use the Gutzeit-Marsh reaction.

Photo of collecting water from a well at Teriail High School in Bangladesh.
Credit: Chemists Without Borders
Students collect water from the new well at Teriail High School in Bangladesh.

Arsenic is easy to extract from rice with just hot water, Tyson said. But the resulting starchy mixture hinders the test kit. Tyson’s team is taking two approaches to improve performance—switching from zinc to borohydride and using dialysis to separate arsenate and arsenite from the starch.

Although the water and rice projects are currently running in parallel, Tyson anticipates adopting the penny-per-test method for rice as well.

Participating in CWB ... helps me to keep my science real.

But CWB is working on more than dealing with arsenic contamination. The organization launched a project in Sierra Leone in response to an e-mail exchange between Gerber and Khadarlis, an organization operating in the nation. As part of that exchange, Gerber asked people at Khadarlis whether there were any chemistry-related problems CWB could help with. The answer was “were there ever!” he told C&EN.

The Sierra Leone education project, which is now led by A. Bakarr Kanu of Winston-Salem State University, is intended to help rebuild the country’s education system after the destruction wrought by its decadelong civil war. The project is developing inexpensive kits to jump-start chemistry education. In addition to imparting fundamental chemical knowledge, the team members are working to include information that’s relevant to the everyday lives of ordinary Sierra Leoneans, Kanu said.

A key part of the project is the development of affordable lab experiments based on green chemistry principles. The team is putting together lab kits based on the microscience techniques commercialized by Radmaste Microscience, a South African company. Each kit will include all the materials for the experiment and manuals for the teacher and students. For example, one kit lets students use an indigenous plant to purify water, Kanu told C&EN.

It is currently estimated each kit will cost $75, and the number of kits needed for a class will depend on how many students work together in teams. The current goal is to have 12 to 15 activity kits ready to go by next September. The group anticipates reaching 200–500 students and teachers in approximately 50 schools each year. A Global Innovation Grant of ACS, which publishes C&EN, has helped fund the education project.

CWB also provides support for a project that was started, and continues to be run, independently of the organization. The Paper Analytical Device Project, led by Marya Lieberman of the University of Notre Dame, gets its funding from outside sources. CWB publishes updates about the project in its newsletter and helps with recruiting partners.

Credit: Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame
Secret shoppers visit Kenyan pharmacies, such as the one shown here, to buy drugs.
Photo of a woman working at a Kenyan pharmacy.
Credit: Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame
Secret shoppers visit Kenyan pharmacies, such as the one shown here, to buy drugs.

Lieberman develops inexpensive devices for screening pharmaceutical products for adulteration or falsification. She collaborates with hospitals in Kenya, which send secret shoppers to pharmacies to purchase available drugs. The hospitals analyze the drugs with paper devices stamped with reagents for colorimetric assays.

Each card has multiple lanes, each with the reagents for a different reaction, so a given drug produces a color bar code characteristic of its chemical composition. If the bar code differs from that for a known standard of the drug, the drug is flagged for further testing.

But the paper devices can only screen the drugs. Suspicious samples need to be sent elsewhere for confirmatory analysis by high-performance liquid chromatography. For those analyses, Lieberman has enlisted a network of labs across the country, especially at small colleges, for distributed pharmaceutical analysis.

Lieberman has an established standard operating procedure for the analysis. Partner schools have to test their equipment to ensure the devices are suitable for those procedures. Demonstrating system suitability is a good real-world activity for undergraduates taking instrumental analysis, Lieberman said. If the system passes, the lab can start receiving and analyzing samples.

Although her work is independent of CWB, Lieberman benefits from the connection. “My work with paper millifluidics is focused on solving problems in the developing world, but I don’t want to put a lot of work into designing a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, or a solution that is not implementable or scalable,” she told C&EN. “Participating in CWB helps me to meet people from the developing world and learn about their problems, resources, and constraints. It helps me to keep my science real.”

At the symposium, Ephraim Govere, a soil scientist at Pennsylvania State University and a native of Zimbabwe who is not affiliated with CWB, reminded the audience that cultural differences can be real impediments to the implementation of CWB’s various projects. And those cultural differences can be within a single country. For example, he said, many countries in Africa have multiple regions divided by geography and culture. If people from the outside aren’t aware of and aren’t sensitive to those differences, they can do as much harm as good.

Gerber takes the challenges of “cultural competence” to heart. “We lost a valuable relationship with a Bangladeshi adviser owing to our lack of understanding and awareness,” Gerber told C&EN. “Despite one’s constant sensitivity to these issues, it is not difficult to appear like a bull in a china shop. That’s why we do as much as we can through local people.”

Gerber has big dreams for the organization. At the symposium, citing an estimate from the International Labour Organization, Gerber pointed out that as many as 20 million people worldwide work in chemistry. He views them all as potential participants.

“The potential to solve problems is enormous,” Gerber said. “There are 20 million of us in the chemistry community, plus all the people they know. Imagine if we were all mobilized.” 


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