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UJ Mobile lab to combat disease outbreaks – E. coli, sewage in water

The spilling of sewage into the Durban harbour in the last week, has something in common with another recent event. Two hundred SANDF technical team members were called out to the Vaal Dam in November last year.

Regionally, flooding caused by cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique and Zimbabwe wreaked havoc in the countries.

In all of these, the water that thousands of people rely on, is contaminated either by sewage or by pollution from flooding. This puts people at risk of waterborne diseases. These life-threatening conditions can affect everyone, but babies, the elderly and those with suppressed immune systems are at most risk, says Prof TG Barnard, Director of the Water and Health Research Centre, University of Johannesburg (UJ).

In these situations, it is critical to test water and get the results quickly. Armed with the results, water can then be made safe for use.

But these events usually happen far from big cities. And that’s where the laboratories that can analyse water samples are. So driving back and forth means it takes much longer before people have safe water.

Mothers and water

“The idea for this lab started a few years back. The moment that really sticks in my head happened during the Carolina diarrhea outbreak. The then-minister of Water and Sanitation said ‘I had to listen to moms crying about babies who were critically ill, asking: ‘Why can’t we sort this out now?!” And we knew we still had to go sample and drive three hours back to the laboratory, before we could even start the analysis,” says Prof Barnard.

“We knew if we had a laboratory on site, we could do things much faster. It would make a huge difference to the people getting ill. We could start testing water at a household level. We could tell people: ‘Bring in your water, and let’s make sure your water is OK. We could assist with treating water on site. We could assist the water treatment plant with testing additional to their own, so the water supplied to the community is safe for consumption,” he adds.

It’s taken a few years for Prof Barnard and his team to design and build a mobile water lab that can operate off-grid. It has high road clearance and is towed by a 4×4 vehicle.


In the past, the research team drove for hours to deep rural communities to test water – and had to build a field lab from scratch till deep in the night.

“We started asking ourselves: ‘Do we really have to build a field lab every time we go out to test water?’ That’s where the mobile lab idea was born,” says Dr Kousar Hoorzook.

“For each trip, we packed up everything we needed from the UJ laboratory, and carried it out of our building to a trailer outside. It would take nine hours to drive to the site. When we got there at 5pm, we would find we have a derelict hut to work in. Sometimes we had to clear out animal faeces or cement blocks first,” she says.

“Then we started cleaning the space. After that we would sterilise it. Only then could we start testing the water samples, and it would be 10pm already,” she adds.

Hoorzook is the co-designer of the lab with Barnard and Mr Robin Robertson, an industrial designer. She was awarded seed-funding from the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) in partnership from the Department of Science and Technology (DST). Currently she is getting the lab ready for field trips at the Process Energy and Environmental Technology Station (PEETS) at the UJ Doornfontein Campus in the Johannesburg CBD.

Round-the-clock water testing

There are some other mobile analysis options globally already.

Says Prof Barnard: “What makes the mobile lab different is that can be parked on site and that some staff can start working, while others go to collect the water samples. You can do science on site, continuously, 24 hours a day, without the need to go back and forth between accommodation and a fixed laboratory in a city. The shift that needs sleep can camp in the side tent of the lab.”

“We built the lab around the typical tests we would do, which are guided by the South African national standards for drinking water quality. We built it to do the basic tests for that, which includes E. coli testing as an indicator of faecal pollution. If you find E. coli in the water, there is a good possibility that other organisms that cause disease, could be present. Then you know to expand the testing,” says Barnard.

“The organisms we typically test for are the bacteria that cause dysentery, typhoid fever and cholera. These types of diseases cause severe diarrhoea, sometimes vomiting. They spread quite fast. You need low numbers of bacteria in the water to get ill and these can be transferred from human to human,” he adds.


The laboratory design is really a ‘shell’ that can be customised, Barnard says.

“The space inside was set up so you can bring in different types of equipment to do different types of analysis, to test for different types of bacteria. We designed it with a lot of space so that multiple testing equipment can go along. Then if you find that you’ve got to test for typhoid, dysentery or cholera, you can easily adapt your setup on site, and test for it.”

The mobile lab runs its sample fridge and incubator, analysis equipment and air-conditioning on solar panels, a generator and batteries. The lab carries its own safe water supply and a side tent to accommodate more testing equipment and staff needing shelter. Because it can operate without grid electricity or water, the mobile lab can stay on site for several days if needed.

Testing for schools, clinics and hospitals

The lab is designed to answer all sorts of questions. What bacteria are contaminating the water supply? Are people washing their hands properly with safe water before eating or preparing food at home? What about schools, clinics and hospitals – is there a problem in a canteen’s food preparation, food storage or cleaning procedures? Did repairing a leak in a city water supply pipe introduce contamination?

Because of this, the lab can be a cost-effective option to monitor water treatment plants, community water supplies, schools, clinics, and hospitals for potential Water-Sanitation-Health (WaSH) problems. Regular monitoring across the country is a huge challenge.

The lab is designed to address Water-Sanitation-Health (WaSH) questions in an integrated manner. All three have to be addressed to successfully contain an outbreak or to monitor so that outbreaks do not happen.

Prof Barnard and Dr Hoorzook are developing short courses to train lab staff in the standards and protocols required to operate a mobile lab like this.

With regular WaSH monitoring, fewer children under five are at risk, fewer school learners lose sleep due to runny tummies, fewer employees take sick leave, and fewer people arrive at hospitals and clinics due to preventable problems.

Concludes Barnard:”We believe that this laboratory and the technology in it, will be able to take high-end water testing closer to rural areas and other places far from standard laboratories. Then communities have access to a laboratory that can do water analysis in their area or in their village.”

Uj Mobile Lab Staff
Prof TG Barnard (left) and Dr Kousar Hoorzook (right) inside the UJ mobile water lab.
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