PlomBoxear: A Device for Open Source Metrology to Fight Lead Contamination in Drinking Water

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway University of London
Department Name: Physics


This project aims to translate research funded by a 2017 STFC GCRF Foundation Award to deliver an open-source, low-cost device to measure lead (Pb) contamination in drinking water.

This project draws on an area of research supported by the STFC core science programme: ultra-precise radioactivity measurement and calorimetry developed to search for dark matter. The predecessor GCRF project built upon this research to develop detection of Pb in water using interactions of radioactivity emitted from Pb atoms in CMOS sensors, together with data acquisition (DAQ) via a mobile phone. This project aims to translate these developments to application in a low-cost device, and demonstrate its utility for measuring Pb contamination in water in a pilot study in Argentina. Development and validation activities will be carried out across the UK, Argentina and México.

The motivation for growing capacity for and developing new Pb measurement techniques is that Pb pollution is the #1 cause of loss of life expectancy in the world, and currently 2 of the top 10 worst pollution problems in the world are associated with Pb [1]. This is a problem both in LMICs and in high income countries- examples like the Flint, Michigan, USA, water safety breaches demonstrate that water quality in violation of World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines can happen anywhere, and information about water quality, and its variation in time, is not widespread. Even 'clean' technologies, like electric cars, employ traditional Pb-based batteries; the disposal of these batteries is a leading contributor to Pb pollution in drinking water, particularly in LMICs.

Currently, Pb in water measurements require expensive, specialized equipment to reach relevant sensitivity levels for human health- even 0.1 parts per million contamination with Pb produces devastating biological impacts. The device we propose to develop, the PlomBox, will use a custom sensor assembly box that plugs into a mobile phone to acquire and analyze the data. We aim for the box cost to be <10 GBP. The goal is to make widely-distributed metrology and real-time, crowd-sourced monitoring of Pb levels in drinking water possible for the first time. This technology could have a transformative impact on the public health problems associated with Pb pollution.

The World Health Organization (WHO) limit for Pb in drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). Reaching this level of sensitivity is an incredibly challenging problem, which we address by leveraging the precision calorimetry techniques for Pb in silicon (Si) detectors demonstrated in the predecessor GCRF project, together with biological techniques to detect trace impurities using engineered bacteria demonstrated by the U. of Buenos Aires collaborators.

We request support for 873k over 18 months to support PDRAs and Technicians in Argentina (5), México (3), and the UK (3), travel, and consumables costs to fabricate the PlomBox prototypes, deploy them in a field test, cross-validate against Germanium (Ge) detector gamma spectroscopy and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS).


Planned Impact

This proposal aims to develop pathways to translate the expertise in material radio-assay developed for particle astrophysics and bacteria engineering techniques developed for synthetic biology into impact on human health, through quantifying the incidence of a leading environmental toxin, lead. The ultimate goal is to reduce the health impacts of lead pollution. This project takes the approach that the first problem to address is to develop open source tools that can be widely applied to quantify the presence of lead, pursuing the idea that what can be measured can then be improved.

Lead exposure accounts for over 850,000 deaths each year due to long-term effects on health, with the highest burden in LMICs. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation also estimates that lead exposure accounts for 9% of the global burden of idiopathic intellectual disability, 4% of the global burden of ischaemic hearth disease, and 7% of the global burden of stroke [1]. Children absorb more lead and are particularly vulnerable, with early childhood exposure known to lead to behavioral problems in adolescence, IQ decrements, cognitive impairment, and decreased visuo-spatial skills. Although there is no known level of lead exposure considered to be safe, lead and other heavy metals are still widely used in the production of consumer goods. In LMICs, inadequate regulation, informality of many industries, poor surveillance, and improper disposal of contaminants can result in dangerous exposures to nearby residents [2]. Mexico is the world's 5th largest producer of lead and 40% of its production is used locally in various industrial processes that cause lead contamination of the environment. Argentina similarly suffers from environmental exposure and lack of quantification of hazards or exposure at the point of water use in rural environments.

This work aims to deliver smart technology that can rapidly evaluate lead content in food and water using mobile instruments, eliminating the need for expensive and time consuming laboratory measurements, and minimising health risks through immediate identification and alerts of toxicity. Measurements of Pb-210 using the CMOS-based technology will be validated against existing BEGe gamma spectroscopy detectors we have developed at Boulby, delivering world-leading sensitivity at <10 mBq/kg [3]. The Pb-210 to total lead content will be correlated using our ICP-MS facility at RHUL.

If the outcomes of this project are all realized, we will demonstrate the utility of a device costing 10 GBP for widespread use by affected communities. This will both provide water safety information to communities, and develop a real-time geographical map of Pb pollution which can be used by municipalities and NGOs to best target Pb mitigation efforts.

[1] Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). GBD Compare.
[3] "Low Background Gamma Spectroscopy at the Boulby Underground Laboratory", arXiv:1708.06086 (2017)


10 25 50
Description Thus far, the most significant achievements are:

Work package 1: a genetically-modified e-coli feed-forward system has been developed that fluoresces in the presence of lead at the WHO limit (10 parts per billion). The intensity of fluorescence is slightly brighter than what was assumed in the device design, which retires an important risk in the project.

Work package 2: a prototype measurement device has been developed and mechanical characterization of the sensor + lens to image the bacterium fluorescence has been demonstrated, using early samples from work package 1.

Work package 3: a prototype of the mobile phone application has been developed and demonstrated sending data from the phone to database to server for analysis.

Work package 4: a measurement of the efficiency of the Germanium counter that will be used for the conventional lead assay in LabChico, to cross-calibrate the field test results from the PlomBoxear devices. A publication is in preparation. This was a collaboration between the UNAM team and the Boulby Underground Laboratory group.
Exploitation Route The research team aims to take these findings forwards to develop a low-cost device, using the biosensor developed in work package 1 together with the imaging system of work package 2, to measure lead concentrations in drinking water measurements in the field using the mobile phone application developed in work package 3 to acquire and analyze the data. These results will be validated against measurements using state-of-the-art radio-assay techniques from low-background astroparticle physics in work package 4.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink


Description Our goal of reducing the global burden of lead poisoning through developing a new device for low-cost, open-source metrology, is unchanged. Lead is the leading cause of loss of life expectancy globally. The economic and societal impact of this project will be to decrease the global burden of disease associated with lead pollution. The project is only one-third complete at this time. We have not yet demonstrated impact, but aim to do so by month 15. The major challenge in the project thus far has been for RHUL to conclude the due diligence and legal agreement process required in order to disburse funds to overseas partners.
Description PlomBoxear: A Device for Open Source Metrology to Fight Lead Contamination in Drinking Water
Amount £873,000 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/T015586/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2019 
End 03/2021
Title Biosensor for Lead Detection via Fluorescence 
Description The project team has engineered a biological feedback system that shows sensitivity to identify the presence of lead at the 0 vs. 10 ppb level, via the intensity of fluorescence, for the first time. This is a preliminary result, obtained last week! This is reported in the presentation at the URL below. This research will be published. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This work is the first demonstration of the biological feedback mechanism for lead detection at the level relevant to the WHO limit for lead in drinking water. The development and demonstration of this technique underpins the success of work packages 1 and 2 in this project. 
Description GCRF collaboration for Pb water metrology in a new underground laboratory facility in UNESCO Comarca Minera GeoParque, in Hidalgo, Mexico 
Organisation Autonomous University of Mexico City
Country Mexico 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I initiated the research project, and lead the collaboration. My team is working on R&D to study lead assay in water using CMOS.
Collaborator Contribution My partners are leading the integration with UNESCO GeoParque Comarca Minera, and the development of the underground laboratory radioassay facility there together with the associated community outreach.
Impact outcomes have been three scientific outreach days in Mexico, two international scientific meetings, and initiation of a new underground laboratory for low-background radioassay. The outreach activities are documented here:
Start Year 2017
Description TRACE Network 
Organisation Bariloche Atomic Centre
Country Argentina 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This research collaboration has brought Biology, Forensic Science, Engineering and CMOS expertise to the project.
Collaborator Contribution These partners are responsible for Work Packages 1 and 2 of this project. The work packages are described in the GRTA Business Case.
Impact The collaboration on this project brings together Physics, Biology, Engineering and Forensic Science.
Start Year 2019
Description TRACE Network 
Organisation University of Buenos Aires
Country Argentina 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This research collaboration has brought Biology, Forensic Science, Engineering and CMOS expertise to the project.
Collaborator Contribution These partners are responsible for Work Packages 1 and 2 of this project. The work packages are described in the GRTA Business Case.
Impact The collaboration on this project brings together Physics, Biology, Engineering and Forensic Science.
Start Year 2019
Title PlomApp 
Description A mobile phone application to interact with the lead sensor, upload it to the cloud, analyze the data, and return to the user a map of measured lead-in-water levels is under development, as work package 3 of the project. A first working instance is available at the gitlab for the project (URL below). 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact This application will be used for the field test of the lead measurement device, planned for the final months of the project. 
Description Outreach event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A series of outreach events has been held, with 300-400 attendees, reported on the facebook page and twitter of the project. LabChico, which is the host of Work Package 4 of this project and the first underground laboratory in Central America, has been the centerpiece of outreach activities that have promoted our project, and more generally, particle physics for public health, in Spanish, to secondary school and university students in Hidalgo, Mexico (where LabChico is sited), as well as members of the public and local government. LabChico is hosted in a UNESCO GeoParque, which has forged the connection between the PlomBoxear project and UNESCO.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020