NC State develops way to test bacteria levels in water using smartphone

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – We’ve seen swimming advisories issued for several area beaches already this summer because of harmful bacteria. Now, a North Carolina State University professor is developing new technology that allows people to test the water themselves.

Kristen Hedman said she and her children enjoy cooling off in Jordan Lake. It’s a popular spot for a lot of people. But, in July and August, the conditions tend to be just what large algae blooms need to flourish.

So, just the thought of being able to test the water herself is comforting to Hedman.

“It sounds amazing because the water is a scary thing, and last summer, my children actually had staph infections,” she said. “Not from Jordan Lake, but from a different body of water, and it put us out of commission for like a whole month.”

That’s what Dr. Qingshan Wei at N.C. State and his team want people to be able to avoid.

“The algae blooms at least six to eight times in Wake County, and they often happen in open surface waters such as Jordan Lake,” said Wei.

At a high enough level, algae blooms in a body of water can create dangerous toxins that can harm pets. They can also lead to headaches, vomiting, and respiratory paralysis. In extreme cases, they can cause death.

Four common types of cyanotoxins are anatoxin-a, cylindrospermopsin, nodularin, and microcystin-LR.

Public swimming areas are constantly monitored by health agencies to keep people safe. If bacteria levels hit a certain level, they will close the beach.

The technology Wei is developing allows people to take their own sample of water, place it on a customized chip, and then put it into a reader attached to a smartphone.

“People can just use the tools you already have in your pocket such as a smartphone. The app is super simple. Only a few buttons,” Wei said. “It allows the user to control their cellphone camera to capture the image or to upload the image.”

A cellphone camera is used to detect toxic molecules. It only takes five minutes for the sample to be analyzed. 

“Specifically, this water isn’t the cleanest, and if you’re able to test for bacteria and such, I think that’s really helpful,” said Vladimir Hoff.

“I think it would be a very handy tool,” Sarah Ely added. “Especially for parents when they’re bringing their children into the water to test it quickly and know the answers right away.”

The device is still in the earlier stages of development. Wei hopes it will not only be able to test recreational water but eventually drinkable water, as well. He also sees it as a tool that field crews with various agencies will also use.

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