Terrorism vulnerabilities to the water supply and the consumers' right to know

[Online Exclusive, August 2009] -- The vulnerability of our water supplies to disruption and contamination by potential terrorist acts has been well documented. Education as to the nature of a potential threat empowers people at risk to take actions to reduce loss...

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By Dan Kroll

The vulnerability of our water supplies to disruption and contamination by potential terrorist acts has been well documented. Due to the nature of this sort of attack, casualties will be inevitable. No remedial actions are capable of completely mitigating this threat to consumers. Education as to the nature of a potential threat empowers people at risk to take actions to reduce loss. Education, accompanied by suitable public warning in the case of a detected event, saves lives, curtails panic, and expedites recovery.

Public safety is a fundamental duty of government. Public safety is also the responsibility of citizens to take action not only to protect themselves and their loved ones but also to make society safer through their everyday actions.1 This responsibility cannot be met unless proper education of the public is implemented.

First responders and others critical to the discovery of, mitigation of and recovery from such an attack on water supplies should receive education pertaining to the potential threat. A second target for education on the threat would be the media. Many reporters specialize in these issues. If they were to be educated in advance regarding intentional water contamination events, they might be able to interpret the actions and advisories of authorities for the public.2

The public is not liable to be acutely engaged until after an attack has occurred. It is nonetheless crucial that we invest more resources toward educating local community leaders about immediate actions that can be taken in the aftermath of such an attack. Officials operating from a response plan that has taken into account the potential for such a water emergency and communicating through a press that comprises informed members is the best hope for intelligent choices by the public.3 Although a difficult proposition, any effort to educate the public pre-event will be sure to reap rewards.

A well-informed public is an asset because they are less likely to panic in the case of an emergency. A thorough understanding of the risks entailed in a water contamination emergency will result in a rapid and correct response by those that will have to deal directly with the consequences. Besides the obvious salutary effects of being able to limit exposure, preventing panic and hastening clean up and recovery, there is an added benefit of having an informed public in the case of water contamination emergencies that doesn't exist for other types of emergencies. Hurricanes and nuclear detonations are not difficult to detect. A water emergency, however, may not be readily apparent. An informed public may be able to help in the discovery of such an event through consumer complaints and reporting.

Statements made by officials in the aftermath of 9/11 that our water systems were safe resulted in a false sense of security for the public. The fact is that our water supplies are indeed vulnerable. This risk needs to be communicated. Offering the public platitudes will do no one any good. A well-informed citizenry is the ballast that will maintain society in a steady state. Not only will it reduce the potential destructive nature of an event but also, in the case of water contamination emergencies, may actually aid in early detection. It is the public's right to be fully informed and it is our duty to see that it is done in such a way as to optimize the potential benefits while preventing paranoia or general mistrust of water supplies.

1. Partnership for Public Warning. A national Strategy for Integrated Public Warning Policy and Capability. May 16, 2003.
2. Carter A. B., May, M. M. and Perry, W. J. The Day After: Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City. The Washington Quarterly. Autumn 2007.
3. ibid.

About the Author: Dan Kroll is chief scientist at Hach Company's Homeland Security Technologies division, in Loveland, CO. He has been the lead researcher on a variety of method development projects for the physical, chemical and microbiological quality of water and soils for which he holds several patents.

August 2009


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