Drinking Water Threats May Soon Be Rapidly Detected

August 18, 2010

Drinking water contamination sickens many people every year. Some of these illnesses are caused by toxics linked with problems such as equipment breakdowns, operator errors, or influxes of pollutants from storms or industrial discharges. Sabotage by terrorists, while it has not been documented in the US yet, is also a potential concern.

Current monitoring systems are slow, leading to a tardy response by system operators, and a long lag before the public is notified, if it is notified at all. To help address these problems, EPA and the Dept. of Energy have collaborated to develop an improved monitoring package that utilizes inline sensors in the water network and software called CANARY.

The system has been piloted in Cincinnati since 2007, and is now being tested in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and by a few other utilities and consultants. In addition, 867 entities have accessed the software, as of Aug. 16, 2010. EPA officials say it isn't possible to identify each one, but that 594 are in the US, 99 are in Asia, 91 in Europe, 70 in the rest of the Americas, and 13 in the Pacific region. Looked at another way, 310 are with government entities, 177 are in the private sector, 169 are commercial, 155 are academic, and 56 are in some other category.

EPA says it's uncertain when the system will be fully tested and readily available. However, you can ask utilities of interest to your audience whether they are investigating this system, and if so, why, and if not, why not?

One resource for further developing your coverage of this issue is the annual Consumer Confidence Report that each water utility must provide to all customers by July 1 of each year. That report indicates any violations of a water quality standard. Such violations possibly could have been detected by CANARY, and unhealthy exposures might have been eliminated or shortened. In addition, the CCR should tell you if the public was ever notified during the year about a water quality problem. If standards were violated, and the public wasn't notified, ask your utility why.

To get the CCR, simply ask each water utility in your area. In addition, some are available from a utility via its Web site, or on EPA's Web site.

In an effort to further improve drinking water safety, EPA is soliciting public input via a Web forum on the best ways to do this. The Forum will cover four areas of interest to EPA as part of its drinking water strategy announced in March 2010: addressing contaminants as groups rather than one at a time; developing new technologies; using certain existing statutes to protect drinking water; and partnering with states in different ways. The Forum is expected to be open through about mid-September 2010.