Q: Is the Nation's drinking water supply safe from terrorist attack?
In general, the threat of contamination of drinking water through terrorist activities is small. Most contaminants would need to be used in very large quantities, thereby minimizing an actual threat. Treatment processes already in place will deactivate many contaminants. Also, following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, drinking water utilities across the nation were alerted about the need to increase security and have augmented surveillance and protection measures.
Q: What kinds of threats or terrorism are there to drinking water?
The primary threats to the Nations drinking water supplies are contamination by chemical, biological or radiological agents; damage, destruction, or sabotage of physical infrastructure; and disruption to computer systems. Generally, biological agents considered to be weapons of mass destruction pose the most danger in aerosol form (i.e. direct exposure to pathogens transported in the air).
Q: What is EPA doing to protect the drinking water supply?
- EPA is working in partnership with state and local governments to protect the Nations drinking water supply from terrorist attack. Under Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 63, issued in May 1998, EPA was designated as the lead agency for the water supply sector. The following is a brief description of the activities that have taken place since that directive.
- In September 1998, the Agency established a public/private partnership with water-related organizations and subsequently appointed Diane Van de Hei, executive director of Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), as the water sector liaison to the federal government on critical infrastructure. In November 1998, a preliminary plan, National Infrastructure Assurance: Water Supply Sector, was drafted. While the November 98 preliminary plan showed a scheduled completion date of the end of 2003 for these activities, the schedule has been accelerated in response to the terrorist acts of September 11th. We expect all activities will be in place or completed by the end of 2002.
- In October 2001, Water Protection Task Force was established to ensure that activities to protect and secure water supply infrastructure are comprehensive and are carried out expeditiously.
- In October 2001, EPA disseminated to Americas water utilities useful information about steps they can take to protect their sources of supply and their infrastructure, which includes pumping stations, treatment facilities, and computer systems.
- EPA is working with Sandia National Labs to develop training materials for water companies to help them conduct thorough assessments of their vulnerabilities.
Q: Is bottled water safer than water from my tap?
Bottled water is not necessarily safer from terrorist attack than your tap water. Bottled water is valuable in emergency situations (such as floods and earthquakes), and high quality bottled water may be a desirable option for people with weakened immune systems. In most cases, bottled water comes from a water source just like water from your tap. The safety of bottled water depends on the safety and emergency response plans in place at the bottling plant. Tap water is protected at the drinking water facility through local security measures advocated and supported by EPA, state and local governments, as well as state and local-based water organizations.
Q: Will boiling water help?
Boiling water is effective in removing certain contaminants. When microorganisms, like those that indicate fecal contamination, are found in drinking water, water suppliers may be required to issue boil water notices. Boiling water kills these organisms that can cause disease. However, boiling water containing certain contaminants, such as lead and nitrate, will increase the concentration and the potential risk. It is best to check with your local water utility or health department to determine if boiling water is necessary.
Q: For what contaminants do drinking water systems monitor and can water companies detect harmful agents in the water?
Drinking water systems monitor for over 90 microbial, chemical, and radiological contaminants such as lead, giardia, and radium. While many systems do not monitor for every possible contaminant, treatment processes already in place are effective enough to treat microbial contaminants and to remove most chemical contaminants. Water systems routinely monitor water quality to determine if a contaminant is present and at what level. If a contaminant is detected at a level higher than acceptable, then the water system will activate the appropriate treatment.
Q: Could a small drop amount of biological or chemical agent introduced into a source of drinking water contaminate a whole citys drinking water supply?
Not likely. EPA, over the years, has studied chemical and biological threats to water. We have consistently found that it would take very large amounts of a contaminant to threaten the safety of a water system. Because of increased security at water reservoirs and utilities around the country and because people are being extra vigilant as well it would be difficult for someone to introduce the quantities needed to contaminate a system without being detected. In addition, should a contaminant be introduced, the treatment system already in place for treating drinking water before it comes out of the tap will, in many cases, remove the immediate threat to public health.
Q: If a terrorist attack on my water supply is carried out, how will I know? Will I be able to tell if my water is contaminated?
In the unlikely event of an attack on your local water system, the drinking water utility would activate its existing emergency response plan with local law enforcement and state emergency officials. These plans provide for shutting down the system, notifying the public of any emergency steps that need to be taken, like boiling water, and providing an alternative source of water, if needed. Follow the advice of your water supplier if you receive notice of a threat.
Q: Where can I get more information?