If you took even a five-minute shower this morning, odds are good that you’ve already used more water than the average resident of a developing country’s low-income community uses over the course of an entire day. Nearly 800 million people around the world don’t have access to safe water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. This contributes to millions of deaths each year — most of which could be prevented with the use of clean water and effective sanitation systems.

Addressing the world’s water crisis is a big challenge, to say the least. But one company has developed a partial solution to cleaning water at the source from which it’s consumed: We’re talking about a straw, ladies and gentlemen — and not the bendy kind. In honor of World Water Day on March 22, Greatist is sucking up all the details we can about this potential game changer.

The Lowdown

Released in 2005, Lifestraw is a small, handheld product (about nine inches long and an inch in diameter) that offers potentially massive benefits. The purpose of the portable water filter is to provide easy access to clean, safe drinking water pretty much anywhere, with the goal of preventing common diarrheal diseases and other illnesses that can result from drinking contaminated water.

Engineered primarily for emergency response during wars or post-natural disasters and for impoverished communities lacking access to clean water, the product has also gained popularity among backpackers and travelers for its compact size and ease of use.

The flute-shaped device works by purifying water from most sources (even ones that may look unfit for consumption) as it’s sipped. The manufacturer (Vestergaard Frandsen, a company specializing in emergency response and disease control products) claims that the product is proven to remove 99.9 percent of waterborne bacteria and parasites without the use of chemicals, electrical power, batteries, or replacement parts. Users simply place the straw in water and sip through the mouthpiece, then blow through the straw after drinking to clean the filters and prevent them from clogging.

Provided users follow these instructions, each personal straw should filter at least 1,000 liters (or 264 gallons) of contaminated water before it needs to be replaced. Vestergaard Frandsen also makes the Lifestraw Family, which can filter up to 4,755 gallons of water before reaching the end of its usable life. The company estimates that an individual Lifestraw will last for approximately one year, while the Family version should provide a typical family of five with up to three years’ worth of clean water. Currently, Lifestraws are distributed by NGOs throughout the developing world and are also available for individual purchase.

The Buzz — Why People Care Now

The Lifestraw was designed in part to help the U.N. meet its Millennium Development Goals for providing global access to clean drinking water. Each year, more than 3.4 million people (that’s almost the entire population of Los Angeles) die from causes related to water, sanitation, and hygiene. Meanwhile, 780 million people (more than twice the United States’ population) lack access to a clean, adequate water source. These hazards are faced almost entirely by people in the so-called “developing” world.

Lack of access to safe drinking water is a main contributor to diarrheal diseases, which are the source of 1.4 million preventable child deaths each year, as well as malnutrition, intestinal infections, malaria, and other diseases. Nearly all of these are preventable through access to clean water in addition to proper sanitation systems and hygiene education.Thankfully, awareness about the issue is growing, thanks to global initiatives such as World Water Day and the work of organizations implementing solutions in at-risk communities.

The Lifestraw seeks to meet the immediate need for cleaner water by providing individuals and families with a “point-of-use” treatment system (i.e., water filtration that happens at the same time and place that water is being consumed). This system allows people to experience immediate health gains and may reduce the risk of waterborne diseases that can occur from recontamination during collection, transport, and home useHousehold drinking water in developing countries: a systematic review of microbiological contamination between source and point-of-use. Wright, J., Gundry, S., Conroy, R. Water and Environmental Management Research Centre, University of Bristol. Tropical Medicine and International Health, 2004 Jan;9(1):106-17Water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions to reduce diarrhea in less developed countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Fewtrell, L., Kaufmann, RB, Kay, D., et al. Centre for Research into Environment and Health, University of Wales. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 2005 Jan;5(1):42-52.

is it legit?

Yes, and maybe no. Thus far, two clinical trials have found a correlation between use of the Lifestraw and a 25 percent reduction in the prevalence of diarrhea, and researchers hypothesize this number might rise with higher rates of proper useRandomized controlled trial in rural Ethiopia to assess a portable water treatment device. Boisson, S., Schmidt, WP, Berhanu, T., et al. Department of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Environmental Science and Technology, 2009 Aug 1;43(15):5934-9A study of the use and impacts of LifeStraw in a settlement camp in southern Gezira, Sudan. Elsanousi, S., Abdelrahman, S., Elshiekh, I., et al. Department of Community Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Gezira, Sudan. Journal of Water and Health, 2009 Sep;7(3):478-83. doi: 10.2166/wh.2009.050.

Still, the Lifestraw is not without its critics: Some people maintain there aren’t enough studies proving the effectiveness of the product, while others argue that the straw is too expensive for citizens of the developing world (at $3.50 each, the straws cost more than three times what many people make in a day of work) and fails to address the root causes of water injustice. We also weren’t able to figure out how exactly people are able to know when and if the straw has stopped working properly.

The Lifestraw is not the solution to the world’s water crises — sustainable infrastructure, sanitation systems, hygiene education, and community empowerment are also necessary for creating lasting solutionsWater, sanitation, and hygiene interventions to reduce diarrhea in less developed countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Fewtrell, L., Kaufmann, RB, Kay, D., et al. Centre for Research into Environment and Health, University of Wales. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 2005 Jan;5(1):42-52. What the Lifestraw does do (or at least attempts to do) is meet an immediate need for cleaner drinking water — a need shared by too many people the world over. It’s a big challenge, but it’s one that humans are fully capable of meeting.

Photo: Vestergaard Frandsen

Do you think the Lifestraw is a smart approach to the global water crisis? Share your thoughts in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @Lauranewc.