Before 2014, access to clean drinking water was a crisis that seemed to touch only faraway countries. In 2014, the City of Flint, Michigan, opted for a cheaper water source, with approval from the state government, while new infrastructure was being built, and in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded there were dangerous levels of lead in residents’ homes.
Headlines and news broadcasts unveiled a silent crisis: The United States wasn’t immune to the fragilities of aging infrastructure. Even in America, children and adults could fall ill from drinking the tap water.
James Thompson, CEO of HaloSource in Bothell, refers to this historic time as pre-Flint and post-Flint. HaloSource — a small but global company with employees in the United States, India, and China — is one of the few clean water technology companies in the world and has spent much of its 16-year lifespan providing technology to India and China, where water sources are contaminated with viruses and bacteria. In those markets, HaloSource cartridges filled with a bead-like medium that kills toxic contaminants are installed in appliances to provide clean water for people’s homes, offices, and schools.
A few years ago, HaloSource began developing the technology for a lead-filtering water bottle, knowing there was an issue with heavy metal contaminants in water sources across the globe, but, being a small company, it shelved the idea and continued to focus on its foreign markets.
Then Flint happened.
“People talk about how wars are going to be fought over (water), and all this hyperbole, but it wasn’t something people in the U.S. felt threatened by,” Thompson said. “They understood the water problem by reading The Economist or National Geographic. It doesn’t touch you personally, and all of a sudden, it was right in our backyard. People started to read articles about it and think, ‘Should I be worried about my water?’”
This spring, HaloSource launched a new product — astrea, the first water bottle that self-filters heavy metals and lead to the highest industry standard. For roughly a year and a half, HaloSource put astrea’s design and technology through a series of trials to prove it could effectively filter water from the beaker level up to a metric ton. After placing the cartridge filter in the water bottle, astrea is ready for use for up to two months.
Next, HaloSource pored over astrea’s architecture to ensure it could compete on a visual level with leading water bottle brands. One of the contracted designers, Bart Massee, was head of the design team for Sonicare for a period, and another member on Massee’s team had previously done work for Porsche.
For those who are prone to losing water bottle lids, astrea will be a game-changer. The lid has to be removed only when the cartridge needs replacing; otherwise, users can just pop open a secondary lid for drinking and refilling.
Environmental campaigns regarding the wastefulness of plastic water bottles have popularized the use of personal, reusable water bottles. By 2024, it’s estimated to be a $9 billion global market, including self-filtering pitchers. In order to better gauge public support for astrea, HaloSource launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign earlier this year and raised its $50,000 goal in less than a month. HaloSource also is using profits to donate funds to the Flint Child Health and Development Fund.
In most countries, water problems derive from poor or nonexistent water treatment plants, so why the need for astrea in the United States, outside of Flint?
“It’s all about the last mile problem,” Thompson said. “If your building or dwelling, whether it be an office, a school, or your home, was built before 1985, you might have a (lead) problem. It is not an infrastructure problem. We have wonderful water treatment plants in this country — world class.”
The United States has a controversial past with lead pipes, which were first used to construct municipal water systems in the late 1800s because they were more malleable and durable than iron or wood. Lead pipes were banned on and off throughout the country until the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986 prohibited installing new lead pipes. Replacing the existing lead pipes has been an expensive and slow process.
In the wake of Flint, a flurry of news outlets conducted their own investigations to decipher the scale of lead poisoning in the United States.
An investigation from The Guardian in 2016 revealed 33 cities — including Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee — in 17 states “have used water testing ‘cheats’ that potentially conceal dangerous levels of lead.”
And Vox reported 1.2 million children in the United States were found to have elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream as of 1999-2010, a number that likely is much higher now that children are tested for lead less often. The 2017 report concluded that 80 percent of children with lead poisoning in Washington state, among others, are not tested by their pediatricians or local health department.
“And it’s not just about kids, although our target is moms of school-aged children, but cardiovascular problems have been tied to lead,” Thompson said of the startling statistics. “A U.S. News & World Report article said lead in drinking water has been underreported by a factor of 10.”
Astrea is coming onto the market at a time when people are really paying attention to their water, Thompson said. Now that the company has diversified, there’s the potential for HaloSource to create an all-encompassing self-filtering water bottle that addresses lead and bacteria/virus concerns, Thompson said, because in China, for example, those three contaminants are an issue.