TrendWater quality monitoring offers business opportunities

Published 1 March 2006

We have written several stories about water purification companies coming up with innovative solutions to keep the U.S. drinking water safe. Indeed, experts argue that the systems monitoring the nation’s drinking water may need a significant overhaul in order to keep up with potential bioterror attacks. There are thus many business opportunities in this sector.

Water monitoring systems currently in use cannot detect specific biological or chemical contaminants in the water system, says Jeanne VanBriesen. VanBriesen is an engineer and microbiologist who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and co-heads the school’s urban water security program, called WaterQUEST. Finding out exactly what contaminant is in the water can take time because tests for dangerous microbes take 24 to 48 hours to complete. “I can definitively tell you that you should not have drunk the water yesterday,” VanBriesen said. “Clearly, this detection method is not ideal.” VanBriesen was speaking at a Carnegie Mellon conference on crisis readiness held in Washington, D.C. Such delays are worrisome, as previous biological outbreaks in drinking water have had deadly results: In 1993 Milwaukee suffered an outbreak of Cryptosporidium, a protozoan parasite that can cause illness and death. The outbreak caused thousands to be hospitalized and killed more than 100. It took several weeks to identify the origin of the outbreak.

VanBriesen highlighted the basics of water security and intrusion detection in the United States. There are several main avenues for defending the water distribution system, which includes water purification facilities and the underground network of aging pipes delivering water to homes and businesses. First, security officials need to prevent access to water treatment facilities and other access points such as water towers. Since 9/11 there have been improvements in access control, VanBriesen said. The second line of defense — monitoring water supplies for toxins or contaminants has serious gaps. Currently, water officials use spot checks at businesses and industrial sites (homes are typically inaccessible) to check water quality indicators on a weekly basis. These indicators, however, are not generally testing for dangerous microbes. Rather, they check secondary data, such as the level of chlorine in the water. A drop in chlorine levels may indicate a problem, because chlorine suppresses dangerous microbes from growing in water as it travels from processing plants to the tap.

The Carnegie Mellon water security project is busy looking at ways to use chlorine monitoring to track pathogens in water. Chlorine is used up in chemical reactions with bacteria, so chlorine levels drop when harmful biological organisms are introduced into water, said Damian Helbling, a Carnegie Mellon researcher. Preliminary experimental results using chlorine levels to track pathogens have been encouraging, Helbling said. There are also few real-time sensors deployed in major cities. For example, Pittsburgh has two sensors up and running that provide real-time monitoring for chlorine levels. VanBriesen said that water systems are looking at more widespread deployment of sensors, and that an average city would need about 25 to 100 sensors to cover critical and essential points in water pipes and plants. The trouble with adding sensors, however, is not only the associated cost, but also the fact that more extensive real-time monitoring would produce an overwhelming amount of data, said VanBriesen. “Detection is not sufficient [there is a need for] an intelligent infrastructure system [there is a need] to do something more with that information; [a] need to combine it with models and with historical data.”

For innovative water detection and monitoring company there is a room to run here.

-read more in Benton Ives-Halperin’s CQ report (sub. req.)