VanderWeele (Photo by ITT Industries, Inc.)

A 15-year-old Portland, Ore., student may have found a solution to Bangladesh’s chronic arsenic problem with its drinking water. Kathryn VanderWeele, a freshman from Oregon Episcopal School, was recently named the U.S. winner of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP) for her study, "Removal of Arsenic from Drinking Water by Water Hyacinths," sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association.

According to the World Health Organization, as many as 77 million of the people in Bangladesh are at risk from arsenic in drinking water. VanderWeele, who got interested in studying water quality issues after a mandatory seventh-grade science project, stumbled across the Bangladeshi drinking water problem.

"My mom showed me an article from Scientific American about the water problem in Bangladesh and how the people are drinking high levels of arsenic in the water daily," says VanderWeele. "A lot of people tried using hyacinths, but I found a lot of gaps in their research and my purpose was to help remove those gaps."

VanderWeele notes that other studies failed to study how long the same plants could reduce arsenic over time, as her study implemented the use of repetitive trials.

"The studies I found were only looking at one trial and the people in Bangladesh would want to know how many days they could use the same plant to reduce arsenic levels," she says.

VanderWeele says she started each trial with water at an arsenic level of 300 parts per billion (ppb), which is typical in Bangladesh. In her first trial, she discovered that the hyacinths brought the arsenic level down to 0 ppb. The second trial, the plants only brought the levels down to 50 ppb, while the third and fourth days the levels could only be reduced to 70 ppb. Click here to view chart

While the plants in the trial were not successful in meeting the U.S. EPA’s proposed drinking water standard of 10 ppb, VanderWeele says her study may work better in Bangladesh.

"The plants would definitely have an advantage there [Bangladesh], because it’s their native climate," she says. "They would be able to remove the arsenic for longer periods of time."

VanderWeele had some help from her science professor, Dr. William Lamb,...