The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) announced the establishment of the Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability. This prize will award $1 million for a practical technology that can prevent the slow poisoning of people throughout the world as a result of arsenic contamination of drinking water.

Arsenic-contaminated drinking water affects tens of millions of people, especially in developing countries where existing treatment technologies are too expensive for widespread use. The prize will be awarded for the development of a small-scale, inexpensive technique for reducing arsenic levels in drinking water.

Treating drinking water with high levels of arsenic is not a major problem in the United States because many communities have the resources for expensive, centralized and well-maintained water treatment facilities. “Different solutions are required in the developing world, and the solution has to work in the field,” explains Alden Henderson of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “The idea of sustainability is to offer communities choices and an opportunity to have a hand in finding a solution.”

A quarter of the population of Bangladesh drinks water from tube wells, a cheap, low-tech way of accessing ground water. Many of the country's estimated 10 million tube wells were built with international aid to provide an alternative to bacteria-tainted surface water. Unfortunately, these wells frequently tap into aquifers contaminated by arsenic from natural sources.

Arsenic poisoning is a slow, painful process that can ultimately result in death. Debilitating sores often appear first, followed by nerve damage, commonly in the hands and legs, which are especially sensitive to arsenic.

Affected people can have difficulty working or even walking, and continued exposure can lead to liver failure, kidney failure, cancer or the loss of arms or legs.

The goal of the Grainger Challenge Prize is to encourage the development of a household- or community-scale water treatment system to remove arsenic from the contaminated ground water.

The system must have a low life-cycle cost and must be robust, reliable, easily maintainable, socially acceptable and affordable. As a sustainable technology, the system also must be within the manufacturing capabilities of a developing country and must not degrade other water quality characteristics or introduce pathogens.

“Sustainable development is not just about conservation and the wise use of the Earth's resources, but also about improving the quality of life for all people,” says NAE President William Wulf.

Historically, prizes have stimulated interest in creative approaches to engineering challenges. Examples include aviation prizes such as the Orteig Prize won by Charles Lindbergh and the recent Ansari X-Prize for building a private spaceship. “A challenge prize does more than just reward an individual for achieving a technical goal,” Wulf explains. “It also focuses the talents of a particular community on solving a problem.”

The Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability is made possible through the generous support of The Grainger Foundation. The prize is administered and managed by the National Academy of Engineering, a private, nonprofit institution that provides technology advice under a congressional charter.

More information about the Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability is available at