By Melanie Gilbert
LOWELL — The mighty Merrimack River, a major source of Greater Lowell’s drinking water, historically has been one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, even as it quenches the daily thirst of nearly 600,000 people.
Continuing to improve the region’s water quality and safety is a goal of municipal water authorities, and an innovative device being developed at UMass Lowell will enlist citizen-scientists to help in that effort.
Professor Pradeep Kurup’s lab is developing a handheld device, called an “electronic tongue,” that will test tap water for heavy metals, toxins, pesticides and other elements. The goal, said Kurup, is to put the power of tracking drinking water contaminants into the hands of the people in the community.
“We believe that frequent community engagement in water quality, and taking appropriate action, will have a profound effect in protecting public health,” Kurup said. “Through a community-engaged, citizen-science approach, we will sample and test water from social-economic diverse communities of Lowell, Lawrence, Dracut and Andover.”
Run out of a lab at UMass Lowell’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department, the project was awarded nearly $2.5 million by the National Science Foundation to develop the consumer application of the technology.
The event announcing the award was attended by such leaders as UMass Lowell Chancellor Julie Chen, state Reps. Vanna Howard and Rady Mom, Mayor Sokhary Chau and City Manager Tom Golden, as well as numerous scientific and nonprofit groups that will be implementing the project at the community level.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan secured the NSF funding.
Markey said he grew up three blocks from the Malden River, and his mother told his then-10-year-old self never to swim in it.
“All the industries were all right along that river, just using it as a sewer,” Markey remembered. “Year after year it piled up until the Malden River was just black. The same thing was true up here in the Merrimack Valley.”
He said both his grandfathers died before he was born, which he attributes to the contaminated waters.
“We can only imagine what they were exposed to in terms of chemicals or what was in their drinking water,” Markey said. “There were no warnings, no protections.”
Calling Kurup’s project a “Paul Revere, early-warning” system, Markey said he was honored to secure the funding for the lab.
“It’s my job to get the money to these scientists to help them solve these problems,” Markey said.
Trahan continued the theme of local roots, recalling summertime walks along the Merrimack River with her family to get ice cream at Burbeck’s. At the same time, she said river pollution poses an ongoing danger to the community that needs to be addressed. She praised the community engagement piece as essential to the project’s success.
“Water contaminants are an emerging threat affecting our communities across the commonwealth,” Trahan noted. “That’s particularly the case for communities here in the 3rd District. When they asked me to help them secure the funding to support a project which would have some of the most talented researchers in the country work with community stakeholders to get that done, my response was simple: I’m 1000% in.”
Connor Sullivan, of North Andover, works in the lab developing the handheld system for rapid onsite testing of heavy metals, specifically lead, copper and arsenic. He is what is known as a “triple River Hawk” graduate, earning his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate at the university.
“We’re at the start of what’s a four-year project,” he said. “The idea is that by the end of the project, we hope to have a test kit that we can give to citizens, which they will use be to test their water.”
That community engagement piece is why the NSF funded the lab’s project, said NSF Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering Margaret Martonosi.
“Water pollutions remains a top environmental concern in our country,” said Martonosi, who joined by video. “With this funding, professor Kurup and his team will engage citizen-scientists and local nonprofits to test water, and educate their communities about drinking water quality in ways to effect the necessary change to improve water quality.”
State Sen. Ed Kennedy said these kind of partnerships between the educational, technological, municipal and community-action groups keeps Lowell at the forefront of the region’s gateway cities.
“I think today was an important day for the city,” Kennedy said. “It’s just another example of the partnership the city of Lowell has with UMass Lowell. That relationship and that partnership is what sets Lowell apart from the other gateway cities.”