EPA software detects bioweapons in water

The Environmental Protection Agency has developed software that utilizes existing sensor technology in order to detect biothreat agents like anthrax or arsenic in water supplies.

After the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, water utilities began to look seriously at how to detect contaminants that could be introduced into the water supply accidentally or on purpose, as in the case of a terrorist attack, according to EmergencyMgmt.com.

The utilities already had existing systems to detect chlorine, pH, turbidity, temperature and total carbons, but none to detect biothreats.

“The challenge was to try to use existing sensor technology to try to detect these types of contaminants,” Regan Murray, a research scientist with the EPA, said, according to EmergencyMgmt.com.

In response, the EPA developed software that it calls Canary that detects changes in the water supply. Canary has already seen successful service in Cincinnati and Singapore.

When a contaminant is introduced into the water supply, sensors are able to measure certain differences. Canary decides whether or not those differences are significant. If they are, someone is notified to test the water, EmergencyMgmt.com reports.

To create the system, scientists at the EPA had to experiment with the sensors and a multitude of contaminants to determine whether the same original type of setup could detect impurities other than what it already checked for.

“We did 23 different contaminants, which included things like pesticides and some biological organisms like E. coli and also some other things we’d be more worried about terrorists using in the water,” Murray said, EmergencyMgmt.com reports..

They found that the sensors would signal if the water quality changed, which suggested some means could be found to make it applicable to almost any contaminant. Canary was developed to automate the process.

“We needed it to be a data-analysis process that would go on in the background so a person doesn’t have to look at the data to see if something unusual is going on but instead the software could do that,” Murray said, according to EmergencyMgmt.com.

David Hartman, the assistant superintendent of the Water Quality and Treatment Division for Greater Cincinnati Water Works, is generally optimistic about Canary’s effectiveness.

“The system produces alarms, which is good news, and so far there hasn’t been a situation that couldn’t be explained as something other than foul play," Hartman said, according to EmergencyMgmt.com. "That leaves the unknown. If there is an attempted contamination of the system, will Canary work as it has been?  Because we get alarms, the indication is that it works.”