Safety from tap to tongue

The need for field-deployable, continuous real time water monitoring technologies is urgent. Existing systems for testing water safety are cumbersome, requiring water samples to be taken periodically, tested with the aid of cultured biosensors or agents, with test results taking several hours to come in.
In a report released in August last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviewed state-of-the-art technologies that could be integrated into an early warning system (EWS) for detecting the presence of chemical, microbial and radiological contaminants in drinking water infrastructure. Alarmingly, the report concluded that "Designs of EWSs for water distribution systems are largely theoretical or in preliminary stages. Some individual components are available currently; however, others need further development. Viable integrated EWSs that meet the desired characteristics and can be routinely used are several years away."
In the meantime, water supplies and water distribution systems remain vulnerable to attack.
"The US drinking water supplies are a major target for both domestic and international terrorists," Dr. Mark Krekeler, professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University, told HSToday. "Terrorists can introduce a wide range of substances that are soluble in water. These include radiological materials such as 137 cesium chloride, poisons such as certain arsenic compounds, and biological materials such as cholera. These are just some of the potential materials that can be weaponized. A single attack can have an impact on several hundred to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in major cities."
Christopher Choi, an associate professor of agriculture and bio-systems engineering at the University of Arizona (UA), agreed. "Injection of contaminants into drinking water distribution systems can readily bypass current protective barriers in place at water treatment plants. The threat eliminates the benefit of dilution in large water reservoirs, and an attack on the nation’s water distribution systems can be easily accomplished with inexpensive tools which are available at local hardware stores."
BioSentry
One solution being proposed is BioSentry, a revolutionary water-monitoring device that uses laser-based technology to scan, detect and classify the presence of harmful agents and micro-organisms in water in real time.
More than just monitoring water, the automated device can both detect and classify waterborne agents within minutes. Developed by San Diego, Calif.-based JMAR Technologies, the system utilizes laser-produced, multi-angle light scattering (MALS) technology to generate unique bio-optical signatures for harmful micro-organisms and is capable of identifying particles down to 0.5 microns in size. These are then checked and classified against an on-board pathogen database, which can be remotely upgraded. Unidentifiable agents are also reported, with all alerts being relayed over e-mail or encrypted Internet or sent directly into linked information systems. When an "event" is detected, the system also immediately captures a water sample for validation.
Currently, the BioSentry system is undergoing field-testing for homeland security applications on cruise ships, water utility distribution systems and city building protection. More systems are also being put to use in convention centers, amusement parks, US and foreign government buildings, large buildings and hospitals.
"Currently, water is not checked for contamination in any of the applications planned, with the exception of water distribution systems, and in this application random grab samples are taken for analysis," said John Ricardi, vice president of business development for JMAR. "The results of the sample testing are not received for 24 to 72 hours, so any contaminated water has already reached the consumer. Although drinking water in the United States is considered among the safest in the world, an increase in the visibility and awareness of recent terrorist activity has brought water safety to the forefront of our security concerns."
Water Village
Researchers at UA are currently working on the "Water Village," a drinking water distribution system, housed in four dwellings, that’s being used to assess the detection and fate of biological and chemical agents in a ‘real world’ distribution network. Funded through a grant given by the Department of Homeland Security and the EPA, the village is a model community that will help researchers understand how biological or chemical contaminants might travel through a real neighborhood or building, or how it might travel as people open their taps, take showers or flush their toilets.
"The real challenge in the 21st century is to continue delivering safe water to the tap," said Charles Gerba, a UA professor of soil, water and environmental sciences and one of three principal investigators on the project. "Treatment plants have guidelines for producing safe water, but the big ‘I don’t know’is the distribution system, and very little has been studied about how water quality degrades through a distribution system, especially in your own home. The hardest question is knowing where to look. The second question is: How do we clean it up? The third is: How clean is clean? We can use this facility to examine emerging technologies for contaminant detection and control in a simulated real-world situation."
Water Sentinel
The EPA also recently initiated the Water Sentinel program, a pilot project to help select cities conduct monitoring and surveillance of their drinking water systems in order to provide early warning of a terrorist or intentional drinking water contamination event. The President’s 2007 budgetary plan requests $38 million for this program and proposes to expand the Water Sentinel pilot to four additional community systems next year. The effort will not only protect thousands of miles of drinking water infrastructure, but also provide an early warning system for millions of drinking water consumers, in the event of a chemical or biological attack.
The first phase of this program will kick off later this year and will be undertaken at a water utility in Cincinnati, Ohio, close to the EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center (NHSRC). The BioSentry system is slated for testing by the NHSRC later this year.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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