November 23, 1998

Making Money, Saving Lives

Atlanta Business Chronicle

Atlanta Business Chronicle - November 20, 1998by Zach Coleman Staff Writer
An Atlanta start-up company believes it has the solution to what is emerging as the biggest mass poisoning in history.

The problem is that millions of water wells built over the last two decades in Bangladesh and India are contaminated with arsenic. The public health crisis already has sickened millions of people. Researchers estimate that 18 million to 76 million people are at risk in Bangladesh and another 6 million people are endangered in the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal.

Project Earth Industries Inc. developed a low-cost technology for removing arsenic from water. The technology, which the company developed in cooperation with Clark Atlanta University, proved effective in field tests early this year in India and is now being tested on-site in Bangladesh.

Company officials expect to receive orders from both countries in the next few months. The company has raised more than $7 million from Edward Croft III and other individual investors in Atlanta and Chicago to support its research and development. Croft, a former top executive at The Robinson-Humphrey Co., has been helping Project Earth raise money through his firm, Croft & Bender LLC, and will join its board next month.

"You don't have a lot of opportunities in one lifetime to make a significant impact on the world and make money at the same time," said Romilos Papadopoulos, chairman and CEO of Project Earth.

Papadopoulos, who also serves as CEO of the branches of his family's Athens Pizza empire, founded Project Earth in 1994 after Bryan E. Kepner and another researcher approached him for seed capital to develop a technology they had discovered. The technology involves a process for using heat and acid to manipulate the surface of aluminum and oxygen compounds, called aluminas, to selectively bind to other substances. Papadopoulos signed on as an investor -- and top executive.

Project Earth has continued to refine the compound and is now on its third version of the material. It has filed for three U.S. and five foreign patents. The company has 21 employees and contractors at its headquarters in Buckhead and at its lab and plant in Chamblee. The work force would grow under a planned merger with Kepner's original venture, Scientific Adsorbents Inc., which has annual sales of about $5 million.

One of the first companies that showed an interest in applying the technology was the Chicago-based power plant engineering company Sargent & Lundy LLC. It has been working with Project Earth on a custom compound to remove pollutants from power plant emissions. When Sargent & Lundy's Indian joint-venture partner learned of the alumina project, it brought up the arsenic-poisoning problem.

Arsenic occurs naturally

About 4 million simple wells were built with help from UNICEF in Bangladesh to reduce villagers' dependence on pond water that often carried cholera, dysentery and other diseases. Unbeknown to the agencies involved, the underground aquifers that the wells tapped into were contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic at levels up to a hundred times higher than the maximum guideline of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Lower levels of arsenic contamination are also a problem in parts of the United States and other countries. Even at the levels in Bangladesh, symptoms of arsenic poisoning can take years to develop. But now more than 300,000 people in West Bengal and many more in Bangladesh are showing signs of poisoning, such as skin and intestinal cancers, ulcers, nerve damage and liver failure. More than 100 deaths last year in Bangladesh were traced to arsenic.

Project Earth secured a 2-liter sample of the contaminated water from West Bengal's public health directorate last year and came up with a promising alumina compound after a month in the lab, working with chemistry professors and students from Clark Atlanta. In January, Indian officials began a three-month test of Project Earth's system at one village well. The effectiveness shown in the first month led the officials to reopen the well for villagers' use as the test continued.

The next month, a Project Earth representative described the system at a world conference in Bangladesh on the arsenic crisis. The presentation led to a partnership between Project Earth and the Beximco Group, Bangladesh's largest private-sector company.

Project Earth's system involves running water from the hand pump of a contaminated well through a hose into a 2-foot-high plastic tank. The water passes through a bag of the alumina compound in the middle of the tank and out the bottom in about a minute.

Technology is cheap, safe

Although other technologies can remove arsenic, Project Earth officials said none can match their compound's cost-effectiveness. They said their system can supply the 5 gallons of drinking water needed for a family of four each day for 2 to 3 cents. Each 22-pound bag of compound lasts three to four months and can be disposed of in the trash because the tight bond formed between the alumina and the arsenic prevents arsenic from seeping out, company officials said.

"Activated alumina is an established technology for removing arsenic from drinking water," said Derek Prichett, activated alumina business manager for Canada's Alcan Aluminum Ltd., which has been observing efforts by Project Earth and other companies to develop a lower-cost or higher-absorbency compound. "There is a bit of a race on at the moment to see who's going to come up with the most effective material."

Funding to deploy a solution may come out of a $32.4 million credit the World Bank extended to Bangladesh to deal with the crisis in August.

Kepner, Project Earth's chief technical officer, said the company's system reduced arsenic in the water at the Indian test site from 176.5 parts per billion (ppb) to less than 10 ppb. WHO's maximum guideline is 50 ppb, but it may lower that to 10 ppb.