Science Friday, now brought to you with the power of Procrastinatex! (at least it's here before it becomes Saturday)
All too often, stories of the environment are presented as corporations versus wildlife. Certainly the administration wants you to buy into that world view, the kind of view where fuel mileage can't be increased without killing auto makers, and climate change can't be battled without breaking the back of the economy.
This story is about a corporation that makes millions, a CEO who was born rich, people in terrible poverty, disease, pesticides, and water-borne pestulance. And the CEO is the hero.
35-year-old Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen is the CEO of Danish company called Vestergaard Frandsen. Quite a coincidence, eh? When Frandsen first took a position at the company started by his grandfather, the fabric and clothing company made most of its money on hotel uniforms. But young Mikkel had spent some time in Africa, and he had some very different ideas.
His first task was to find something to do with more than 1 million square yards of surplus fabric the company didn't need. He had the woolen material cut into blankets and sold to aid organizations.
The deal made money for the company, and provided NGOs with a low-cost source for blankets. Expanding from there, Frandsen worked out ways to coat fabric with pesticides and invented a treated mosquito net. By doing so, these chemicals could be used effectively to protect people, without pouring millions of gallons into the environment.
"Ninety percent of our business is malaria prevention," says Vestergaard Frandsen. (The workwear division was sold off in 1997.) PermaNet remains the company's most popular product, with nearly 4 million sold every month. According to the World Health Organization, such nets have helped reduce childhood-mortality rates by 25 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Going from a company that made uniforms, to one that saved approximately 400,000 lives might seem like accomplishment enough. But Frandsen's newest invention looks to be even more important -- the LifeStraw
More than 1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, and 6,000 people die each day of waterborne diseases like typhoid, cholera and dysentery. In regions like sub-Saharan Africa, half of most people's water consumption takes place outside the home—either while they're working, or walking to and from school.
The $3 LifeStraw will drastically lessen their chances of getting sick. "It's a product that can save lives without spare parts, electricity or maintenance," says the firm's CEO.
Each LifeStraw contains layers of increasingly fine mesh filters that block bacteria. Iodine beads kill remaining bacteria, along with viruses and many parasites. Active carbon neutralizes the taste of the iodine and knocks out remaining parasites.
Each of the blue, kazoo-sized tubes if good for about a year, or 185 gallons of water. And the $3 LifeStraw will work in areas without the infrastructure to support more complex systems.
Vestergaard Frandsen's next project is to create a large-capacity household water filter, as well as an insecticide-coated fence to protect crops. He describes both ideas with a zeal that's equal parts commercial and crusading.
The pesticide-coated fence may not seem all that environmental, but using it means that farmers don't use much greater levels of pesticide on their crops. Less pesticide to damage the environment -- and less pesticide in the people. Doing good by doing well. Not as impossible as AEI and the Bush administration would like you to think.