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Infrared Fibers Can Protect Against Chemoterrorism 71

Posted by timothy
from the movie-plot-waiting-to-happen dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Although most Americans take the safety of their drinking water for granted, ordinary tap water can become contaminated within minutes, says Prof. Abraham Katzir of Tel Aviv University's School of Physics and Astronomy who has developed a fiber-optic system that can detect poisons such as pesticides in water in amounts well below the World Health Organization safety threshold using 'colors' in the infrared spectrum which distinguish between pure and contaminated water. 'With our naked eyes we can't distinguish between pure water and water that contains a small amount of alcohol or acetone. They're all clear,' says Katzir. 'But we can clearly distinguish between liquids using an infrared spectrometer which can distinguish between "colors" in the invisible infrared spectrum.' Connected to a commercial infrared spectrometer, the fibers serve as sensors that can detect and notify authorities immediately if a contaminant has entered a water reservoir, system, building or pipeline. 'Toxic materials are readily available as pesticides or herbicides in the agriculture industry, and can be harmful if consumed even in concentrations as low as few parts per million,' says Katzir. Cities like New York are especially susceptible to a chemoterrorist threat. With many skyscrapers holding water reserves on the top of the building, a terrorist only needs to introduce poison into a tank to wreak havoc. 'A terrorist wouldn't have to kill tens of thousands of people. Only 50 deaths — as horrible as that would be — would cause nationwide panic,' says Katzir."
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Infrared Fibers Can Protect Against Chemoterrorism

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  • Chemoterrorist? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Duradin (1261418) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @07:10PM (#28047859)

    Really? Chemoterrorist?

    In the 50's was it Chemocommunist?

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @07:13PM (#28047881) Journal
    While there is almost certainly an argument to be made about the threat of threats being overblown, it'd be hard to argue that mass poisonings are anything but a bad thing.

    I would, though, be fascinated to see if anybody ends up trying to shoot systems like this down, as delicately as possible of course. The overwhelming majority of toxins in the water supply are there as a product of industrial, agricultural, or "non-point" pollution, not any sort of terrorist activity(I can't actually think of any instances of such, beyond poison targeted at a few people, in prepared food or beverages).

    If I were the maker of, say, a bevy of pesticides with rather dubious reputations, I'd be strongly against any sort of systematic, automated water quality sampling system. Same if I were a user of such. Industrial polluters likewise. How long before the American Chemistry Council, or equivalent, starts a "Waterborne toxins: Not really anything to worry about" campaign, urging citizens to "stand against irresponsible fearmongering" and bankrolls a bevy of innocuous and patriotic sounding "Citizens for Responsible Security" type organizations?
    • by Jurily (900488)

      I would, though, be fascinated to see if anybody ends up trying to shoot systems like this down, as delicately as possible of course.

      I'd like to see all other ways the alarm can be triggered, first. Rainwater (acidic or otherwise)? Particles dissolved from the riverbed? A frog swimming in front of the sensors?

      • by zooblethorpe (686757) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @08:35PM (#28048465)

        Frankly, after hearing and reading about the water infrastructures of many major cities, NYC included, I strongly suspect such a system as this would be more readily useful in verifying that tap water is actually safe from pollutants caused by run-of-the-mill industry and poor water treatment / storage / transportation facilities. Good chunks of the NYC aqueduct system are 100+ years old, with some sections of pipe coming in from the Adirondacks still made of wood, fer cryin' out lout.

        Sure, pesticides intentionally dumped in a reservoir are definitely a Very Bad Thing (TM), but polychlorinated biphenyl [wikipedia.org] or polycyclic hydrocarbon aromatics [cdc.gov] are also *not* Part Of This Nutritious Breakfast (TM). There are plenty of nasties we've put into our *own* water supply, either out of cluelessness or laziness or greed [chemicalin...chives.org], and new and easy ways of detecting these can only be good.

        Cheers,

    • Which is all exactly why these chemical corps would want the testing to be calibrated to ignore all their "normal" pollution, while the testing satisfies everyone that their water is "pure, perfectly safe".

      Meanwhile, Bruce Schneier exposed the threat of "poisoning the water supply" as yet another "movie plot threat" that isn't at all a realistic priority for spending time, money, effort and credibility defending:

      G.R. Dalziel, at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has written a report chronic

      • Link (Score:1, Redundant)

        by Doc Ruby (173196)

        You can read the rest of Schneier's blog post "Attacking the Food Supply [schneier.com]".

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by turbidostato (878842)

        "G.R. Dalziel, at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has written a report chronicling every confirmed case of malicious food contamination in the world since 1950: 365 cases in all, plus 126 additional unconfirmed cases.
        [...]
        There are very few incidents of people contaminating the actual food supply. People deliberately contaminated a water supply seven times, resulting in three deaths.
        Just because we have the budget and the products to buy doesn't mean that's how we should be spending our n

        • by The Grim Reefer2 (1195989) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @10:58PM (#28049367)

          In other news, Prof. Obvious has written a report chronicling every confirmed case of malicius airplane crashing against skycrappers in the world from 1950 to 10/10/2001: 0 cases in all, plus 0 additional unconfirmed cases. His conclusion was, well, obvious: just because we have the budget and the products to buy doesn't mean we should spend them to fight such a highly improbable threat.

          Yeah, um, Prof. Obtuse seems to have missed three little known cases of this happening just 29 days prior to his cut-off date.

          • I guess that neither the small plane crashing into the White House, nor the failed hijacking that aimed to crash a French commercial airliner into the Eiffel Tower, would count for Professor Obvious either.
        • by Doc Ruby (173196)

          Except Prof Dalziel chronicled 7 actual cases. Which resulted in only 3 deaths: less than 50% of cases resulted in even one death. But it's not like people didn't actually poison the supply, like skyscraper planebombing prior to 9/11/2001. We have actual data.

          All you have is snark, and a profound incomprehension of risk. Hollywood loves you, but Homeland Security should ignore you.

    • by mpe (36238)
      I would, though, be fascinated to see if anybody ends up trying to shoot systems like this down, as delicately as possible of course. The overwhelming majority of toxins in the water supply are there as a product of industrial, agricultural, or "non-point" pollution, not any sort of terrorist activity(I can't actually think of any instances of such, beyond poison targeted at a few people, in prepared food or beverages).

      In the case of drinking water contamination, such as at Camelford, human error is a far
  • by j_presper_eckert (617907) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @07:13PM (#28047883)

    4 out of 5 assassins prefer chaumurky over chaumas! News at 11.

    • by EdZ (755139)
      Why oh why did my mod points have to expire. The Poison Tester was the first thing this bought to mind.
    • 4 out of 5 assassins prefer chaumurky over chaumas! News at 11.

      And the 5th is Altair [wikia.com].

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I'm going to go eat some undercooked steak. If I'm going to die (probably from heart disease, you know it's got 1/5 odds) at least I'm going to be happy. I really consider the fear of chemoterrorism to be so negligible as to not even be worth discussing.

  • by Jamamala (983884) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @07:27PM (#28047971)
    Sure, with an IR spec read-out, you'll be able to tell that something new has got into the water supply. But what you won't be able to tell is what that contaminant actually is. For that, you'll need some sort of structure determination, as IR will only tell you if it has C=O or N-H bonds for example.

    The reason this is important is that without the structure, you won't be able to tell whether a farmer has just switched to a different type of fertiliser, or the city has being trying out a new way to grit the roads, or whether you're actually dealing with a case of attempted terrorism. The only way this would be helpful would be if you could somehow be sure that only malicious activity would alter the chemical composition of your water, which I think would be extremely difficult in practice.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I don't know what their mothers feed them, but if Israelis can contribute in such ways - camera-in-a-pill, drip irrigation, Checkpoint software, Intel, Google enhancements, the life straw which cleans water as you suck - with everyone else wanting to smack them down, you'd have to wonder what they could achieve to better our lives if we all just shut the *&^% up and let them alone.

      - "Anonymous and highly impressed coward"

    • by fractoid (1076465)
      I'm reasonably sure this consistent innovation is the result of prolonged early exposure to breasts.

      America take note!
    • by Halo- (175936)
      I think what is really displayed here is the human capacity to engineer when placed under stress or threat. Look at the major technological booms which accompanied the the World Wars and the Cold War.
  • by JWman (1289510) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @07:30PM (#28047991)
    Things like this get me irked that we are spending billions upon billions each year on equipment, employees, and wasted time for all the added airport security since 9/11.
    The fact is, is I were a terrorist I'd simply walk onto a bus or subway during rush hour with a bomb, like has been done in England and Spain. Effective, cheap, and little can be done to stop it. Not the same impact as collapsing two skyscrapers, but I seriously doubt any future plane hijackings will be successful since the rules have changed.

    The overreaction to airplane hijackings is disturbing to me. The high school in my home town had a similar reaction to the Columbine shootings. They installed metal detectors at every entrance and hired extra security even though there had been little more than small knives confiscated at school, and never any real violence. Of course, there wasn't time to check people's bags properly, so it would have been trivial to smuggle something in anyway.
    After two years at a cost of about 1.5 million per year, the metal detectors were taken out and the extra security measures scrapped. By then the public outcry for action had calmed, and no one wanted to be flushing 1.5 million down the drain every year.

    I wish they'd do the same with the airport security. Lower it to a roughly pre-9/11 level, and spend the money elsewhere, like to keep nukes and dirty bombs out of the country.
    • by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Thursday May 21, 2009 @07:48PM (#28048135)

      I wish they'd do the same with the airport security. Lower it to a roughly pre-9/11 level, and spend the money elsewhere, like to keep nukes and dirty bombs out of the country.

      I agree, but the problem is that Congress is to used to spending our tax dollars any damn way it wants ... consequently, they'll do both no matter how wasteful.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by JWman (1289510)

        they'll do both no matter how wasteful.

        Sadly I think you're correct. Ideally I'd say to cut the budget from the TSA and put it towards the national debt -- or at this point just towards putting our national budget in the black again. I figured that putting it towards another anti-terror project would be at least a bit politically viable. But, sadly, it is easy for the government to begin funding something and awfully hard to stop funding it.

    • Things like this get me irked that we are spending billions upon billions each year on equipment, employees, and wasted time for all the added airport security since 9/11.

      Agreed. I fly frequently and the blind spots in security are pretty obvious to me. I can't imagine what an individual who is motivated enough to kill themselves could get away with.

      The fact is, is I were a terrorist I'd simply walk onto a bus or subway during rush hour with a bomb, like has been done in England and Spain. Effective, cheap, and little can be done to stop it. Not the same impact as collapsing two skyscrapers, but I seriously doubt any future plane hijackings will be successful since the rules have changed.

      I've been in the airport during holidays and have often thought that the thousands of us all crammed in the pre-checkpoint line would be an easy target too.

      The overreaction to airplane hijackings is disturbing to me. The high school in my home town had a similar reaction to the Columbine shootings. They installed metal detectors at every entrance and hired extra security even though there had been little more than small knives confiscated at school, and never any real violence. Of course, there wasn't time to check people's bags properly, so it would have been trivial to smuggle something in anyway.

      After two years at a cost of about 1.5 million per year, the metal detectors were taken out and the extra security measures scrapped. By then the public outcry for action had calmed, and no one wanted to be flushing 1.5 million down the drain every year.

      I sometimes wonder if [terrorist group here] has any plans to do anything to countries that have been attacked at this point. As far as I can tell the countries that have been

      • by mpe (36238)
        I sometimes wonder if [terrorist group here] has any plans to do anything to countries that have been attacked at this point. As far as I can tell the countries that have been are spending insane amounts of money on "feel good" measures that are frankly worthless.

        Worthless to most people. But not to the companies who are in receipt of that money or the politicans who's egos/chance of re-election is being boosted (even if they don't get any "backhanders").
    • by QuantumG (50515) *

      and yet you don't make the connection.

      1. The government claims the airport security is to stop terrorists.
      2. The terrorists could easily attack other, easier, targets.
      3. And, yet, there are no such attacks.

      We can safely conclude:

      4. There are no terrorists.
      5. The government is lying.

      It's not the Fermi Paradox here.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by JWman (1289510)

        We can safely conclude:

        4. There are no terrorists. 5. The government is lying.

        I seriously hope that was an attempt to be funny rather than revealing some "obvious" conspiracy theory.

        It is just as easy to conclude (and far more likely to be true) that:

        1. There are terrorists, but they either feel they have made their point and achieved their goal of causing terror and its associated overreactions or they are incapable of mounting a significant overseas attack, or unwilling to mount one that would not cause similar damage to 9/11.

        2. The government is not outright lying about the terro

        • by QuantumG (50515) *

          1. There are terrorists, but they either feel they have made their point and achieved their goal of causing terror and its associated overreactions or they are incapable of mounting a significant overseas attack, or unwilling to mount one that would not cause similar damage to 9/11.

          That's what I'm saying yes.. there's no terrorists in the US causing mayhem. Obviously there are terrorists in the Gaza strip.. I just don't know how that's relevant to the US.

          revealing some "obvious" conspiracy theory. [..] The government is not outright lying about the terrorist threats, but is doing what it does best: protect itself.

          Umm.. all I'm saying is that the TSA is making false claims to maintain their funding. We're to believe that there's boogeymen in the airport trying to kill us and that's why we need all these guards and scanning equipment so they can see you naked, etc.

          This is how the game works. Big, fat, bloated, wasteful, and expensive defensive strategies that allow lawmakers to hide behind the guise of being over-cautious will always win over strategies that involve personal risk through bold, decisive action that will likely be criticized by someone, somewhere.

          Yup, that's exactly what I'm saying. They're lying about the threat to justify

    • by mpe (36238)
      Things like this get me irked that we are spending billions upon billions each year on equipment, employees, and wasted time for all the added airport security since 9/11. The fact is, is I were a terrorist I'd simply walk onto a bus or subway during rush hour with a bomb, like has been done in England and Spain. Effective, cheap, and little can be done to stop it. Not the same impact as collapsing two skyscrapers, but I seriously doubt any future plane hijackings will be successful since the rules have cha
  • by liamoshan (1283930) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @07:30PM (#28047999)
    It's a shame that a relatively interesting idea, has to be marketed as an ANTI-TERROR product for it to get any attention.
    I can imagine this being useful for all sorts of problems related to drinking supply water - accidental contamination due to agricultural products, algal blooms etc
    • It's a shame that a relatively interesting idea, has to be marketed as an ANTI-TERROR product for it to get any attention.

      It isn't that it HAS to be marketed as anti-terror, it's that there are truckloads of money [germantown-tn.gov] from the federal government ready for the driving away by anyone who can claim an anti-terror license.

      It ain't anywhere as easy to get funding for routine maintenance or basic infrastructure, so the PR guys at each company are essentially writing the grant applications for the local governments which are their target customers.

    • by mpe (36238)
      It's a shame that a relatively interesting idea, has to be marketed as an ANTI-TERROR product for it to get any attention.

      Maybe that's where the political kudos and the "big bucks" is.

      I can imagine this being useful for all sorts of problems related to drinking supply water - accidental contamination due to agricultural products, algal blooms etc.

      It would be far more rational to compare this with existing methods used to monitor the quality of drinking water. Using such criteria as cost, speed of dete
  • by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @07:39PM (#28048053)

    I wish somebody with a lick of sense would vet these ideas before they got out there.

    All that's going to happen with IR spectrometers checking the water supply is a constant din of false positives, which will at first cause panic, then lethargy. Even a 0.001% false positive rate is way too high when you're trying to find a 0.0000001% signal.

  • DON'T PANIC! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Thursday May 21, 2009 @07:46PM (#28048123)

    Only 50 deaths â" as horrible as that would be â" would cause nationwide panic,' says Katzir

    He's right ... but the only reason that's true is because we, as a culture, panic very easily. Granted, we're encouraged to do so by a sensationalist press, and a government that is always on the lookout for any rationalization for expanding its authority over us.

    Sad commentary on the state of our society, I suppose, given that we mow ourselves down on the road by the thousands every year. That doesn't get anywhere near the media coverage, of course, even though automobiles cause more deaths per unit time than terrorism does (personally, I think some of the SUV-driving sociopaths I have to contend with every morning on the way to work ought to be up on terrorism charges, but that's another story.) We're all far more likely to die in an automobile accident than any probable act of terrorism.

    In the end, dead is dead.

    • "He's right ... but the only reason that's true is because we, as a culture, panic very easily."

      The problem is not panicking very easily but how irrationale our panic is (well, not that someone would expect otherwise, it's panic after all):

      People killed in the Twin Towers attack: 2,752
      People killed in highway crashes in 2001: 42,116

      I didn't look at the numbers lately, but I'd bet that USA hasn't expended roughly 20x trying to avoid car accidents than in "the war against terror".

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mpe (36238)
        The problem is not panicking very easily but how irrationale our panic is (well, not that someone would expect otherwise, it's panic after all):

        Consider all the fuss over "swine flu"... Which as a cause of death ranks well below "freak accidents". Even as an infectious disease isn't really an issue.
        • so you are telling me when fall comes in 6 months in the northern hemisphere fatalities won't skyrocket? you know this as a fact? the spanish flu of 1918 followed the same progression: percolating below the radar over the summer, exploding in the fall when the flu virus survives longer in the cold air

          and even if the fatality rate of this flu is wimpy, which seems likely, you are telling me that when it first appeared in march/ april, your opinion of the disease was spot on about it being harmless? you knew

          • "so who survives when such a hypothetical flu DOES EVENTUALLY arrive? well, i know that answer: certainly not you. those who survive will be those who healhty adrenal glands, who panic, hide and flee. it MAKES SENSE"

            It never made sense. What you are talking about is as old (at least) as the Decameron. And surprise!, those the flew not only died exactly equal than everybody else but by flying they extended the pest.

            I will tell you a *slight* difference between Spanish flu and an current one: ICUs and a vas

      • by nbauman (624611)

        Thomas Schelling, the Nobel laureate in economics http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Schelling [wikipedia.org], agrees with you.

        He said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that "with the exception of the Twin Towers in New York, terrorism is an almost minuscule problem." 3,000 people is "three and a half weeks of automobile fatalities."

        The number of people who die from terrorist attacks, Schelling said, "is smaller than the number of people who die in bathtubs."

    • you mean in china they dutifully and calmly walk out of burning buildings?

      in india they react to men running around with machine guns in icy calmness?

      in europe the sight of exploding buses causes relaxing, calming effect

      howabout AS A SPECIES, as a creature, a fucking mammal with adrenal glands and a healthy flight or fight response mechanism, we react the way we do, as a simple consequence of what we are

      that renders all your faux regret pointless and useless: people panic. people have always panicked. peopl

  • I worked on developing this capability for Process Analytical Chemistry for the food, petroleum, and pesticide industry twenty years ago when I worked for Perkin-Elmer Corp. It's currently owned by Hamilton Sundstrand and marketed under the name PIONIR [hs-ait.com]. The samples are delivered to the spectral analyzer via NIR optical fibers, and other types of analysis are possible, too, including Fourier Transform spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy. The analyzer can be as far as 200 meters from the samples. It's not cheap, though.
    • by deglr6328 (150198) on Thursday May 21, 2009 @09:13PM (#28048745)

      NIR would be inappropriate for this application. If you're looking for contaminant poisons in drinking water you need to have exquisitely sensitive detection thresholds in the part per billion level. A NIR spectrometer using conventional (quartz) fiber optics would be forced to look at the second and third overtones of the fundamental molecular absorption lines in the mid-IR. These overtones have a mere thousandth or hundredth of the relative absorption intensity as the fundamental lines and therefore your signal for extremely low concentrations of contaminants is going to be waaaaay below the noise in your detector. NIRS is best suited for detection of percent level deviations in chemical mixtures, not trace analysis. What this guy from Israel has done is use drawn fibers of silver chloride/bromide [tau.ac.il], which have spectacular transmittance in the mid-IR, to detect the fundamental absorption bands of trace contaminants using the evanescent waves of IR light that poke slightly outside the surface of a fiber optic. I wish I could find his latest paper that this press release is about though.....

      • Water has a terible strong absorption in infrared region, which makes trace analysis using IR spectrometry in water imposible (well, infrared band are generaly weak in comparison with, say, UV-Vis, so IR spectrometry is rarely used for trace analysis at all). UV spectrometry would be better suited for such a task IMHO.
  • For a second, I thought this was the act of laying siege to a populous by randomly and callously treating cancers through chemical means.

    BASTARDS!

    • by dbIII (701233)
      Rubbish. It's already very easy to test. The hard bit is making sure that the testing is done. It comes down to a management problem, if you don't have enough of your own people to keep the contractors honest then all kinds of rules, regulations or desirable outcomes are going to fall by the wayside in the name of expediency. Currently there is a fashion in Australia for private-public partnerships and a hands off attitude on the public side. This is dangerous because the unscrupulous just see the gove
  • Unwise to post (Score:1, Flamebait)

    by b4upoo (166390)

    This information might be used by some nut as a how to manual for killing people. It should not have mentioned details such as water towers on top of buildings.

    • by unitron (5733)

      This information might be used by some nut as a how to manual for killing people. It should not have mentioned details such as water towers on top of buildings.

      I don't think the existence of those tanks was any great secret, although I was under the impression that they were there strictly for fire-fighting.

  • Thank you for all the nice tips, Prof. Katzir. Who says there can't be any Jewish-Arab cooperation?
  • Submersible spectrometers are not new. In fact, I use them every day to monitor urban streams for pesticide and organic impacts. The spectrometers are easily applied to drinking water systems (in fact, easier than how we use them because drinking water doesn't have the same biofouling capacity as a river).

    Nevertheless, the company we use sells their device as a 'UV-Vis multi-parameter' monitoring tool, not an anti-terrorism device. Sure, the equipment would function well in this application, but anyone with

  • The whole "Bad Stuff in the water supply" bit. The problem with every scenario that I've ever seen for poisoning the water supply was that the sheer volume of toxin that would be needed to bring the concentration to anything near a harmful amount is always just plain enormous. Even if you used strychnine, you'd need to pull up to the reservoir with multiple tanker trucks and start dumpin'. You don't need fiber optics and infrared light to see guys dumping thousands of gallons of something into a large la

  • Imagine the disappointment of the terrorist who goes to all the trouble to break into the water tank in a high rise only to find out no one living in a high rise has ever drunk water from the tap. If only he could've broken into every 12 oz. bottle of water from the store.

The bogosity meter just pegged.

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