11/26/2009 10:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Clean Water Is Good Business; But It's No Easy Sell

MIAMI--For nearly 10 years, Greg Allgood has been working on the problem of clean drinking water for one of the biggest corporations in America - Procter & Gamble, the maker of Tide detergent, Crest toothpaste and Pampers, the disposable diapers.

Procter & Gamble also makes a powder containing chlorine and iron sulfate that people in poor countries use to purify drinking water in their homes. Mr. Allgood's job at the company is to get the product, known as PUR, to people who routinely do not have safe drinking water. There are at least a billion people in this category.

Procter & Gamble sells PUR at cost to aid organizations. It is not a money-maker. But helping to ease one of the world's persistent health problems has proved to be good business. The work has drawn praise from former President Bill Clinton and clean water advocates. Mr. Allgood said it has boosted morale among Procter & Gamble employees and drawn attention to the company's other products, including water filters sold in the United States.

The problem of unsafe water around the world is enormous. Many experts say estimates of 1 billion people without consistent access to clean water are probably way low. The number, they say, could easily run to more than 2 billion.

The water these legions of people drink - mostly poor people in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America - is loaded with bacteria and viruses. They are often sick with diarrhea. They get dehydrated. Their energy is sapped. Those with jobs sometimes don't make it to work. The children miss school and, too often, they die before anyone realizes how much the sickness has drained them.

The product, PUR, sells for a few cents. It is one of a handful of processes and devices that have been developed in the last 15 years that enable people to disinfect drinking water in their homes. But the whole idea has been slow in getting off the ground. Only a few million of the huge number of people whose water is unsafe are using these methods.

For one thing, many people don't associate their illness with the water they drink. "They might think diarrhea is something that is supposed to happen when a child is teething," Mr. Allgood said. So it is hard to get them to try something new that they don't necessarily think they need - even if it is free, which is often the case.

For another, governments and agencies like the World Bank tend to think in terms of large-scale projects like multi-million dollar water treatment plants and networks of pipes that can bring clean water into people's homes. But these projects are often too daunting to actually get funded. So the large number of people without safe drinking water stays large.

Mr. Allgood's product works like magic. You empty a packet into 2.5 gallons or 10 liters of really dirty water full of germs and twigs and actual dirt, stir for five minutes and let it sit a while. The solid bits and pieces drop to the bottom and the water becomes remarkably clear. Then you strain the water through a piece of cloth and in 20 minutes it's ready to drink.

Procter & Gamble was unable to figure out how to sell PUR directly to the people who need it most. But the company liked the idea. Now it sells PUR at cost to non-governmental organizations. The organizations either give it away or sell it to people who run grocery stores and small shops. With the middle-men involved, you have someone who has a cash incentive to get PUR into people's homes.

Dr. Eric Mintz, a team leader working on diarrheal diseases at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, is an advocate of household treatment of drinking water. Instead of waiting for treatment plants to be built, he said in an interview, "we can do something now - something simpler and less expensive."

Nearly 2 million children die every year as a result of drinking contaminated water. A staggering number. It works out to 5,000 a day. The total is more than the annual number of children killed by HIV/AIDS and malaria combined.

"This is something that will help keep people alive," Dr. Mintz said, "especially children, the vulnerable ones."

The unsafe water problem gets worse in emergency situations like outbreaks of cholera. In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, much of the drinking water was contaminated.

It is in emergency situations that Mr. Allgood has been most successful. But after the emergency, people go back to drinking their usual water and routinely living with bouts of diarrhea.

Some big international agencies like the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, and the World Health Organization have begun supporting household water treatment, Mr. Allgood said. Population Services International, a Washington non-profit with wide experience in the developing world, also has been promoting household treatment.

Mr. Allgood has won several awards, including the strategic vision award in 2007 from CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Procter & Gamble has gotten a lot of good press. President Clinton has been praising the company at his annual Global Initiative meetings. Popular Mechanics magazine sited PUR in 2008 as one of the top 10 World-Changing innovations of the year.

Mr. Allgood estimates that PUR is reaching four million people a year. He says the number could be 12 million four years from now. "With any new public health approach there are a series of barriers," Mr. Allgood told me.

He talks about oral rehydration, a powder that helps people, especially children, recover from severe diarrhea. Before the advent of oral rehydration, five million children a year were dying from unsafe water. The deaths have been reduced by three million annually.

Oral rehydration, Mr. Allgood said, also had a slow start. "It took a decade for oral rehydration to start making an impact," he said. "It hit its stride in the 1970s and 1980s. They started developing it in the 1960s." #