Utah alliance tests drinking water safeguards

Utah State University spinoff MicroBioSystems, along with WaterWare and EcoNova, united as WaterWorks LLC, are testing new water contaminant detection technology that could alert government agencies and consumers if harmful microbes are found...

NORTH SALT LAKE, Utah, Oct. 30, 2004 (sltrib.com) - An earthquake strikes, contaminating water systems. Or terrorists slip deadly pathogens into culinary supplies.

These are worst-case scenarios for public health officials. But three Utah-based companies believe they have a way to detect the microbial contamination immediately, warn people not to drink their water, fix the problem and call people back when the water is safe.

Operating as a consortium called WaterWorks LLC, the companies tested their system Thursday and Friday at a South Davis Water Improvement District facility. The tests were paid for by a $40,000 Utah Department of Health grant that came from federal money to prepare for terrorist attacks.

"The technology looks promising," said A. Richard Melton, deputy state health director. "This has the potential to revolutionize drinking-water safety."

Several days currently are required to analyze water samples using old-fashioned methods that take time to grow the suspected bacteria in petri dishes. To make matters worse, the standard test looks only for fecal chloroforms, bacterial contaminants from warm-blooded animals.

"In other words, if the water were laced with anthrax, it would still meet current regulatory rules," said Stan Parrish, president of WaterWorks and also of WaterWare, a Salt Lake City company that would alert government agencies and consumers if microbial contamination were found.

The new optical detection technology shines light on a water column. If a virus, bacteria or spores are present, the microorganism will absorb the light. A fluorescent illumination that the organisms give off would be detected by consortium instruments.

Computer software transmits that data by wireless telecommunication to a remote computer or a central government clearinghouse, said Walter R. Ellis Jr., a program manager at the Utah State University Research Foundation. He and seven other U.S. engineers and scientists have described the process in detail in an article appearing in the January/February issue of IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine.

The USU spin-off company that runs the detection equipment is MicroBioSystems (www.microbe-systems.com), headed by Christopher Lloyd, who helped invent the technology. The firm is located at the university's research park in Logan.

Lloyd said this week's tests not only showed the system works, but also that sensors did not give off false positives, incorrectly indicating a pathogen is present. While detection algorithms have a tendency to generate such false alarms, none occurred during 100,000 determinations in this week's tests.

"People couldn't believe we had no false positives," he said. "I'm a scientist and if I didn't know about this technology, I wouldn't have believed it either."

More tests are scheduled next week.

The third company, EcoNova, is doing the remediation work. The North Salt Lake firm has a patent-protected recovery system whose end result - clean water - meets or exceeds environmental regulations, said the firm's vice president, Leslie D. Merrill.


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