New system to monitor safety of building’s drinking water supply

May 13th, 2009 - 11:34 am ICT by IANS  

New York, May 13 (IANS) Chemo-terrorists could turn drinking water into a deadly brew within minutes. To counter this, a researcher has developed a system to monitor the safety of the water supply to a building or a community.
The terrorist only needs to inject poison into a tank atop a skyscraper in cities like New York to wreak havoc, said Abraham Katzir, professor at Tel Aviv University (TAU) School of Physics and Astronomy.

“A terrorist wouldn’t have to kill tens of thousands of people. Only 50 deaths - as horrible as that would be - would cause nationwide panic,” he added.

Besides, “toxic materials, available as pesticides or herbicides, can be harmful if consumed even in concentrations as low as few parts per million”, said Katzir.

Concerned about these possibilities, Katzir developed a new system to monitor the safety of a building or community’s water supply in real time, which could be contaminated by industrial spillage, natural disaster or plain sabotage.

Currently, authorities in America test water reservoirs usually once every day or two, with no system in place to detect chemical threats instantaneously.

“This new system can cut millions of dollars from the cost of testing water manually,” said Katzir. His fibre sensors are made of insoluble, non-toxic, and biocompatible materials. “You can eat them and nothing will happen to you,” he noted.

Modifying special fibres developed in his TAU lab, Katzir can detect “colours” in the infrared spectrum which distinguish between pure and contaminated water.

Not visible to the naked eye, this spectrum is normally only seen by certain animals, like snakes or vampire bats, to track down prey.

Connected to a commercial infrared spectrometer, the fibres serve as sensors that can detect and notify authorities immediately if a contaminant has entered a water reservoir, system, building or pipeline.

In the lab, the fibre-optic system detected poisons such as pesticides in amounts well below the WHO safety threshold. Preliminary field experiments have already been done at several European sites, said a TAU release.

Once in use, the sensor system would be one of the first real-time water monitors in the United States to provide protection from chemo-terrorism attacks - a threat to which US water supplies are particularly susceptible.

“It’s unlikely that someone will poison the water supply in Afghanistan,” said Katzir, “but America is in grave danger and needs to arm itself against chemical threats to its drinking water.”

His paper was published in the Journal of Applied Spectroscopy recently.

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