Examining past emergencies

ALcontrol Laboratories' Clive Thompson enquires 'can we cope?'

The Water Contamination Emergencies - can we cope? International Conference was held from March 16 to 19, 2003 at Kenilworth and 150 delegates from a number of countries attended. This very topical conference was jointly organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, Water Science Forum; the Society of Chemical Industry, Environment Group and the Institution of Water Officers. It was supported by the Environment Agency, the Drinking Water Inspectorate and CIWEM and financially sponsored by eight major water companies and a number of other companies working in the conference-theme area. There was also an associated exhibition with 21 stands taken by companies offering services in relation to water contamination.

It is well-recognised there is a need to react to emergencies involving low probability or high-impact contamination events (chemical, biological or radioactive) in source waters or treated water in time to allow an effective response that will significantly reduce or avoid adverse impacts on consumers or the environment.

Contamination of water can arise from natural causes, industrial accidents, poor watershed management, deficiencies in monitoring or even malicious intent. Examples of incidents attributable to all these aspects, except malicious intent, were covered in this conference. The conference opened with a detailed consideration of seven diverse examples of significant contamination incidents.

These case studies, together with papers from invited experts and poster presentations, formed the basis of a review of lessons learned and identified ways in which we might better cope in future.


Session One of this conference was devoted to the impact and consequences of seven major incident case studies, presented by speakers with hands-on experience of the particular incident:

1. The Milwaukee Crypto. Incident, where the unexpected presence of a high number of Crypto. oocysts in the river water supplying the city WTW resulted in more than 400,000 cases and 104 deaths from Cryptosporidiosis. At that time, Milwaukee's drinking water met all federal standards for safety,

2. The Chernobyl Incident, which resulted in the release of a significant amount of radioactivity after the core of a nuclear reactor exploded and sent 3-4% of the core out into the atmosphere. Smaller particles were carried by the wind and deposited over a wide area encompassing a number of countries,

3. The Wem Incident, which was an industrial discharge to sewer. During the passage of the contaminant through a sewage works into a major water supply river, small amounts of a polar (substituted dioxane) metabolite formed. Many consumers could detect the taste of this substance at a few parts per trillion and this rapidly resulted in a significant number of consumer complaints of taste in the drinking water. The ultratrace level of the substance and its very polar nature caused a long delay before it could be positively identified, quantified and shown to be harmless at the typical concentrations experienced. This compounded the difficulties on risk assessment at the time and led to a major supply challenge,

4. The Hungerford Incident, which was a large unpredictable raw water contamination of a major river that resulted in a major fish kill. After much effort it was shown that the cause was due to natural processes rather then industrial pollution. The event was believed to be the first of its kind. Still, warm conditions led to the development of unusual algal blooms for the time of year. A rainfall event caused the bloom to crash and then this was followed by the increase in bacterial flora thought to produce sufficient quantities of a bacterial exotoxin to kill over 500,000 fish,

5. The O157 Walkerton Incident, which was caused by inadequate water treatment and disinfection. Seven people died and more than 2,300 became ill from E.Coli O157 and Campylobacter jejuni infections. The estimated cost of the incident was more than US$60M,

6. The UK Foot and Mouth outbreak caused severe operational problems arising from restrictions on access to sites, the need to control diffuse pollution from the slaughtered incinerated cattle and mitigate potential long-term contamination of groundwater,

7. The Burncrooks Diesel Incident arose when a significant amount of diesel fuel entered the water mains of a major city. The resulting contamination caused severe operational consequences and gave rise to a large number of consumer complaints. There was a need to provide analysis to rapidly detect very low levels of diesel in many hundreds of samples per day. There were subsequent problems in cleaning up the distribution system.


Session Two was held on the evening of the first day. It consisted of four parallel two-hour workshops on the main themes of the conference.

Although participants could only select to attend one of these workshops, raconteurs present at each session provided PowerPoint feedback on each workshop in open forum during Session Three at the start of the second day. The raconteurs worked until the small hours to achieve this.


The topic for each workshop was aligned to the main objective for the conference - Water Contamination Emergencies - can we cope? Subject areas or activities where it was felt the industry was possibly lacking in capability were identified in order to provide a focus for each workshop. The following topics were chosen:

  • analytical methodologies,
  • external communications,
  • mutual aid - operational support,
  • public health and toxic-ology.

A conference-organising committee member chaired each session, drawing on experts in the audience where necessary to challenge assertions and views expressed. The delegates were encouraged to impart experiences, best practices and any concerns within each topic area.

Recommended water industry key actions were then identified from the outputs. The final summary of the actions to take forward was compiled after the conference and is listed below: l concern about recognition and value of qualified scientists to be raised through RSC and other appropriate bodies,

  • better standardisation of existing analytical methods and development of a range of robust rapid screening methods through the Standing Committee of Analysts (SCA),
  • enhance detection capabilities through the UK water companies and other key laboratories' mutual aid group. This information to be shared with all users,
  • bio-monitoring on-site testing and online testing to be explored through Sensors for Water Industry Group (SWIG),
  • discuss outputs with Water UK and seek water industry collective actions, notably high liaison with the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) and the Department of Health (DoH),
  • seek a forum to review water industry incidents to share best practice on operational responsiveness, communication cascades and water quality monitoring.
  • establish a public health liaison network with the Health Protection Agency (HPA) to involve, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, DoH and DEFRA.

Session Four covered health issues associated with water contamination where rapid decisions have to be made.

The need for improved databases giving relevant and meaningful public health was highlighted.


Session Five covered contamination monitoring and various novel analytical approaches to handling chemical, microbiological and radiological emergency situations. Laboratories may be called upon 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to screen large numbers of potentially contaminated samples.

It is especially difficult to screen large numbers of samples to prove the absence of malicious contamination by chemical, microbiological and radiological contaminants.

The relevant UK laboratories have set up a mutual aid group, which formally meets on an annual basis to discuss how to improve their response and to exchange experiences gained over the previous year.

This group allows laboratories to contact other member laboratories on a 24-hour basis to request assistance. It has also set up some specialist sub-groups.


Session Six covered the management of emergency mutual support, communications and lessons learnt. Often this is the area where the most serious problems arise, especially during prolonged incidents.

The communication aspect of an incident should never be underestimated. Incorrect and alarmist media reports can result in considerable logistic and communication problems for water companies working hard to contain and remediate the incident. Communicating with the press and other media was considered to be a key issue. Perception often overtakes reality during a serious incident. The conference was considered appropriate to the time, especially since the conflict in Iraq started in the week of the conference.

The proceedings of the conference are to be published by the Royal Society of Chemistry early in 2004. The book will contain 21 chapters and gives an extremely good overview of the conference.

A second and larger follow-on conference entitled Water Contamination Emergencies - enhancing our capabilities is to be held at the Manchester Conference Centre from 12 to 15 June 2005. Full details of the conference will be available at http://www.dwi.gov.uk in early 2004.



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