BIOTERRORISM AND WELLS
This article, written by the American Ground Water Trust was originally published in
THE AMERICAN WELL OWNER, 2002, Number 1]
The events of September 11, 2001 have raised fears and caused many of us to reevaluate our daily activities to reduce the potential of injury or death from possible future terrorist acts. One of the fears considered by many is contamination of drinking water supplies with pathogens. Pathogens are disease-causing organisms such as viruses and certain types of bacteria. Bioterrorism is the use of pathogens to cause illness and death in order to spread fear among a population. Some examples include anthrax, smallpox, Cholera, and Botulinum toxins.
Government officials and municipal water system operators are working hard to secure the infrastructure and water supplies of large water utilities from bioterrorism attacks. Several bills are working through Congress that will appropriate money for these tasks (e.g., House bills HR3448, HR3178 and Senate bill S1593). The National Association of Counties (NACo) completed a survey of 3,066 counties in the United States to assess how prepared our local governments are to handle terrorist attacks. The results indicate that more than half of the 731 smaller counties (those with less than 10,000 people) are unprepared to handle terrorist attacks. Although three-quarters of all county public health departments have authority to quarantine, only about 40 percent of the counties have a plan to enforce a quarantine.
What does this mean to the private well owner?
Good News! Private wells are not likely targets of terrorists. The consensus of bioterrorism experts appears to be that larger water distribution facilities are more probable targets than individual homeowner wells. Sabotage of one large distribution facility would likely create a bigger media sensation and more pervasive fear than would be attained through targeting residential wells. Properly constructed wells use sealed and vented well caps, grouted casing and frequently there are thick soil layers surrounding the well to discourage the infiltration of organisms and chemicals into the well. Under most geologic conditions, it is difficult for pathogens to travel any significant distance in ground water because of the filtering effects of the small pathways within the soil and bedrock. These same attributes plus the widely scattered distribution of private wells in a typical neighborhood would make it difficult for a terrorist to concentrate his effort to harm many residential wells.
Homeowners should be wary of claims by water treatment companies that their equipment will remove the microorganisms likely to be chosen by bioterrorists. Currently, no water treatment devices or technologies have been certified as effective against anthrax, for example. Actual anthrax specimens are under close guard and are not available to recognized testing organizations such as the National Sanitation Foundation International (www.nsf.org) or the Water Quality Association (www.wqa.org). No surrogate for anthrax acceptable for water treatment testing has been identified. Some companies are claiming that their technologies will be satisfactory by extrapolating from existing studies on similar sized and shaped organisms. In many situations, the testing of surrogates is not acceptable to the WQA or NSF as a valid substitute for analysis of the actual microorganism. Before purchasing a treatment system, it is recommended that the NSF or WQA be contacted for the most up to date information on equipment and treatment certifications.
For more information on bioterrorism-related bills in Congress go to the following legislative search engine: http://thomas.loc.gov/bss/d107query.html. The NACo survey is available at:
Information about proper well construction can be found through the Water Systems Council at:
[© American Ground Water Trust. This article may be reprinted for non-commercial educational purposes provided it is used in its entirety and that reference is made to its source as an article in THE AMERICAN WELL OWNER, 2002, Number 1]