Prayer alone was no longer enough for Lisa Ballantine, who watched the families fill their baby bottles with murky river water that sickened and even killed their children.
After returning from a yearlong mission trip to the Dominican Republic in 2000, Ballantine, 43, knew there must be a way to help villagers who had neither plumbing nor a way to sanitize their water supply.
The Chicago native stumbled upon a solution while taking art courses at Northern Illinois University a few years later. With just a few materials — including clay, sawdust and colloidal silver — Ballantine learned she could build a ceramic water filter that was remarkably effective at purifying water at a relatively low cost.
"It was good that I was able to be there and pray for them," said Ballantine, a woman of strong faith who home-schooled her four children. "But I always felt I wanted to give them something practical in their lives. ... It was a huge need."
Ballantine spent two years working with her now-retired NIU ceramics teacher, Manny Hernandez, who created similar low-cost water filters as part of an international organization, Potters for Peace.
In 2006, Ballantine and her husband, Michael, sold their home in Wayne and moved to the Dominican Republic. Since then, she has built two factories — one in the Dominican Republic and one in neighboring Haiti — that together produce up to 4,500 ceramic filters monthly. She says she has distributed a total of about 35,000 filters with the help of organizations including the American Red Cross, Save the Children and OxFam International.
During the aftermath of Haiti's 2010 earthquake, relief workers found the filters especially valuable, and less wasteful than the thousands of plastic water bottles littering the island, she said.
The ceramic filters cost $35 — not cheap for villagers who earn about $5 per day, Ballantine said. She works with some families who cannot afford them, but said it is important that residents pay for the filters, which last about five years.
"We try to never give the filters away, even if we charge them a few dollars," said Ballantine, who formed a nonprofit group called FilterPure Inc. "They are more invested in it, they take better care of it and they value it more."
Her goal is for the factories, which are simple, open-air buildings, to be sustainable and empowering to the local residents who work there. A local potter, Radhames Carela, helped start the facilities, each of which employs 10 people. Ballantine's former professor, Hernandez, helped design and fabricate a hand-operated hydraulic filter press, metal shelving, a clay mixer, and two hammer mills that pulverize clay and sawdust.
College students have volunteered their time, as well, said Hernandez, responding to questions by email from the Dominican Republic, where he volunteers at the facilities six weeks a year.
"At first, I didn't give her much thought until she kept bugging me about it," Hernandez recalled, when asked about Ballantine. "This project has been an amazing experience. ... It is even more amazing that it has survived, especially through the economic downturns we have experienced these past years."
While the concept is not new, many poor villagers in developing countries have no access to the simple technology. Ballantine is expanding production facilities in Haiti, and plans to build a factory in South Africa.
"She's always been an artist and wanted to connect with people," said her son, Joshua, 24, who with friends from back home helped open the first factory. "Her goal was never to be some hero. There was a big need for it, and there were potters."
The round-bottom ceramic pot is made from a mixture of clay, a combustible material such as sawdust or rice husks, and colloidal silver. The colloidal silver is a naturally occurring antibacterial, which is mixed into the clay and combustible material.
The mixture is made into a filter and kiln fired, burning out the combustible material and leaving micro pores coated with the silver to clean the water, according to experts. During the firing process, about a half-inch of charcoal is produced within the filter to improve taste and color. The filter, which is designed with a rim, is placed on a 5-gallon plastic storage bucket with a spigot at the bottom for dispensing.
Water is poured through the ceramic pot and filtered into the receptacle bucket. The filter sanitizes water at a rate of about 2 liters per hour, Ballantine said.
David Webb, owner of Ceramic Filters Co. Inc., in Brooklyn, Mich., helped Ballantine develop and test her ceramic filters to make sure they are effective and contain the correct amount of silver. The water is more than 99.9 percent pure after undergoing the process, he said.
"She has every batch tested to be sure no pathogenic material goes through the product," he said. "Generally what happens to silver, it's still there when the product breaks or is thrown away. It's an insufficient amount of silver to do damage to a human but enough to cause a hostile environment for the bacteria."
Since the Ballantines' two youngest children are still in high school, the family travels back and forth between a rental home in Elk Grove Village and the Dominican Republic. Michael Ballantine, a developer, bought a "mountain" in the Dominican Republic and has turned it into a luxury resort called Jamaca de Dios.
"They call it 'Michael's Mountain,'" Lisa Ballantine joked. The gated community features 96 homes, a restaurant and a fishing lake.
About 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases, the majority of which are attributed to an unsafe water supply, according to the World Health Organization. About 90 percent of those who die are children younger than 5, the organization reports.
Yet Ballantine has found some villages less receptive to the ceramic filters.
"I think maybe it's hard for them to see the future when it's, 'What do I eat today?'" Ballantine said.
But today, she can't meet the demand, she said.
She said that she sees the difference in families that started using the filters. Children who had suffered from distended bellies, lethargy and learning disabilities have grown healthier and improved at school.
"(The women) stop me on the street and say ... 'Are you the filter lady?'" said Ballantine, who has learned Spanish since beginning her venture. "They say, 'Our kids aren't getting sick anymore.'"
"I am most proud that it's doing it in a way that is sustainable and empowering," Ballantine said. "It's not just that it's solving the water problem ... it's helping them resolve their own water problem."
For more information, go to filterpurefilters.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun