December 1, 2006 Ecological engineers have developed software that can model the path of a toxic spill in waterways anywhere in the United States. The system can predict if and when a contaminant will reach a drinking water intake, and whether its concentration will be high enough to be a threat. The data base covers more than 300 potential water contaminants, and can be used to alert first responders of potential risks.
If our drinking water supply is contaminated, accidentally or intentionally, a spill response team goes to work, getting the situation under control as quickly as possible. Now new computer software is helping make the response even quicker -- all across the country.
"The first thing we want to do is find out how big of a threat it is," Doug Stolz, of Olympia, Washington's, Hazardous Materials Spill Response Team, tells DBIS. "We want to assess the threat, determine what the material is, and what its characteristics are."
Testing the water helps answer those questions. New software will help even more. Ecological engineer Douglas Ryan helped develop the Incident Command (IC) Water Tool. It shows a contaminant moving through water in real time.
"It puts the information that the incident commanders and the first responders need in their hands quickly enough that they can take action to protect the public at times when time is really critical," Ryan, of the USDA Forest Service, tells DBIS.
The IC Water Tool answers these four questions: Where's the contaminant going? Is there a drinking water intake along the path? If there is, when will the contaminant reach it? And will the contaminant's level be high enough to be a threat to people?
Ryan says, "Right now, that sort of information is scattered in many different places. And to pull it together quickly to be of use to incident commanders takes time and they often don't have that time."
The IC Water Tool can get the information to first responders anywhere in the country making our drinking water safer, quicker. The database covers more than 300 types of potential water contaminants. The software has maps of anywhere a contaminant can enter the water system and each location of where drinking water comes from nationwide. The Department of Defense is distributing the tool.
BACKGROUND: The U.S. has hundreds of thousands of lakes, rivers and reservoirs to supply the American public with its drinking water. But what if a chemical or biological contaminant is introduced into the drinking water source? Many sources of useful data currently exist, but they are scattered and not readily available to on-the-scene commanders in emergencies. An inter-agency team of scientists have developed a new software tool helps protect the nation's drinking water. Knowing the movement of contaminants through waterways and assessing what risk they might pose to public health, is essential is officials are to respond quickly to any potential crisis.
HOW IT WORKS: ICWater is a computer-based tool that integrates multiple information sources and data at the scene of a surface water contamination. Using this information, it quickly produces maps, tables and charts that tell "incident commanders" if drinking water intakes are likely to be in the contaminant's path, and, if so, when and in what concentrations that contamination will reach the intakes. The system was developed by drawing on the extensive expertise of the USDA Forest Service in water research, as well as data sources from several other agencies. The new ICWater command tool is currently used by water utilities and state hazardous materials response teams in Oregon and Washington, and by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency in the Ohio Valley.
HOW WATER IS TESTED: Water samples are collected weekly and analyzed, specifically for high levels of bacteria, which can cause skin irritation, infections in the eyes, ears, and throat, or intestinal illness. The bacterial level is deemed unacceptable when there are more than 100 bacteria per 100 ml of water. A recent report by the Ralph Nader Study Group roncluded that U.S. drinking water contains more than 2,100 toxic chemicals -- including chlorine, pesticides and herbicides -- that can cause cancer. Today, the average person has a 1 in 3 chance of getting cancer, compared to 1 in 50 in the early 1900s.
WHERE THAT GLASS OF WATER COMES FROM: Drinking water can come from either ground water sources, via wells, or surface water sources, such as rivers, lakes and streams. Most U.S. water systems in small and rural areas use a ground water source, while large metropolitan areas tend to rely on surface water. Causes of contamination can range from agricultural runoff to improper use of household chemicals.