Novel Smartphone System Detects Dangerous Lead in Water

With the city of Flint still lacking safe drinking water, one team developed a low-cost smartphone solution that can even detect lead levels below EPA standards.
Shelby Rogers

Flint, Michigan continues to make headlines for the high levels of lead contaminating its drinking water. A new development from the University of Houston could offer a low-cost solution for the average Flint resident wanting to detect whether their drinking water contains dangerous levels of lead.

According to the team, all it takes is a smartphone and a low-cost lens made with an inkjet printer to potentially save someone’s health.

A history of Flint’s water crisis

For four years, the water in Flint, Michigan has made headlines for its toxic water. The issue arose when the city of Flint changed its water sources from Lake Huron and Detroit River to the cheaper Flint River. Insufficient water treatments, lead leaking from lead pipes into the water, and other issues exposed over 100,000 residents to water-related dangers.


A number of companies lept into action while the local government of Flint and Michigan state government struggled to push policies to clean the water. Beer powerhouse Anheuser-Busch shipped over 50,000 cans from its Georgia brewery filled with clean drinking water in February of 2016. Even Elon Musk tweeted that he wanted to develop a solution to clean up the water. 

As of 2017, the government of Flint told its residents that the water quality had returned to 'acceptable' levels. However, residents are still being advised to use bottled or heavily filtered water until the lead pipes have been completely replaced. 

The estimated finish time for that project? Sometime after 2020. 

A smartphone-based solution

While finding an ultimate solution to the Flint water crisis needs more than a single device, researchers from the University of Houston want to reduce the number of people getting ill from dangerous water exposure. 

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Their solution combines nano-colorimetry with a type of dark-field microscopy. It integrates into a smartphone microscope platform and can detect levels of lead that don't meet EPA standards. 

“Smartphone nano-colorimetry is rapid, low-cost, and has the potential to enable individual citizens to examine (lead) content in drinking water on-demand in virtually any environmental setting,” the researchers wrote.

The Houston researchers noted that even trace amounts of lead can lead to serious health problems, including neurological damage that can be particularly detrimental to young children and elderly adults. 

The team was led by Wei-Chuan Shih, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Shih worked with his students last year to develop an open-source data set on how to convert a smartphone into a microscope capable of microscopy. 

They combined that data with color analysis to detect nanoscale lead particles. They created a self-contained smartphone microscope with a cheap Lumina 640 smartphone and an 8-megapixel camera. 

They spiked tap water with a variety of lead from 1.37 parts per billion to 175 parts per billion. They then added chromate ions which react with the lead and form lead chromate nanoparticles. 

Shih said the microscopy was more effective than other forms of low-cost lead detection because the sediment was far too small to be imaged by a regular smartphone camera. 

Shih said he hoped this device could provide some help until more help comes to Flint. 

“We wanted to be sure we could do something that would be useful from the standpoint of detecting lead at the EPA standard,” he said.

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