EPA Water Contaminant Information Tool helps responders in emergencies

By on June 5, 2013
Superstorm Sandy after making landfall on the U.S. East Coast (Credit: NASA)

In 2011, an earthquake rocked the east coast of Japan, causing a massive Tsunami to crash inland. Powerful waves knocked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant offline. Eventually cooling systems failed, causing the reactors to become overheated. A series of hydrogen explosions compromised containment facilities. Radiation leaked into the Pacific.

That’s when the Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Contaminant Information Tool lit up with users. Adrian Hanley, a chemist with the EPA’s Office of Water specializing in emergency response, said users were particularly concerned about the possibility of iodine 131, a byproduct of nuclear fission. “Folks were able to get information on Iodine 131 in a moment’s notice,” he said.

EPA officials put the tool online in 2005 with a focus on terrorism response, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.  Hanley said focus shifted over time toward natural disasters.

The web-based tool is essentially a database compiling harmful water contaminants. Listings are based on recommendations from security agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Center for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security.

It is designed to inform emergency responders and water quality professionals on several facets of water borne contaminants, including their medical effects and chemicals’ physical properties in water.  “We have made it as a resource tool for just about anything that can happen to a water utility,” Hanley said.

Registered users can get information on chemical weapons, organic compounds and pathogens alike, with just a few clicks.

Hanley said the tool gives users quick access to a large amount of information that regular search engines lack. Information is reviewed by chemists, biologists or engineers who have experience working with the chemicals.  “Everything in WCIT has had some sort of peer review,” Hanley said.

That doesn’t mean that the EPA compiled the same amount of information for each of the 805 contaminants listed. Agency workers had to take what they could get.

That leaves two categories of contaminant data sheets. Specific WCIT profiles have wide ranging information for medical treatment, identification, water treatment, field methods and even notes on what to tell the press. These 102 profiles mainly cover well-known contaminants, such as mercury.

Listings for the majority of chemicals are less comprehensive, often covering more obscure substances.

The tool is designed to serve first responders in emergency situations.  Hanley said responders want short and to-the-point information. “They wanted information succinctly and wanted to know where it came from,” he said.

The tool also has a calculator, which evaluates the contamination risk based on amounts of contaminants at given potencies. It also can calculate probable dilution of contaminants so users can evaluate threats.

The Water Contaminant Information Tool database is a protected database to which users must be granted access.  Hanley said the information has to be under some protection to prevent it from becoming a planning tool for attacks against the public.

People working for government agencies, water resources and others related organizations apply for access to the database.  Click here to see a brief slide show with a contact for application.

Top image: The quick info on contaminants on the WCIT is especially useful during natural disasters, like when Superstorm Sandy after made landfall on the U.S. East Coast.  (Credit: NASA)

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