Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2003 / 16 Adar I, 5763

Surviving a Chemical attack, Part III: Food, water sources protected

By Scott R. Burnell | (UPI) Existing purification methods and everyday cooking guidelines should be enough to protect city populations from any terrorist attempt to contaminate food and water sources, specialists in the field told United Press International.

News accounts in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have mentioned individuals arrested while in possession of dangerous chemicals near rivers or other water sources. Lawmakers and others have voiced concerns about the possibility of intentional contamination of a meat packing plant or other link in the food-processing chain, possibly using disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella.

What these scenarios seem to have overlooked is how difficult it is to spread contaminants effectively, said C. Gary Hurst, chief of the Chemical Casualty Care Division at the Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense in Aberdeen, Md. The sheer volume of water in a reservoir or other major water system would dilute any chemical agents quickly, he said, and reactions with the water and particles it normally carries would degrade dangerous additives further.

"The concentration would end up being probably too small to have any real effect," Hurst told UPI. "Cyanide is one agent we worry about. If you're going to put it in food or a small water supply, the salts of cyanide might be effective, but not a reservoir for a city."

Even patching into a neighborhood's water pipes to add contaminants after any treatment facilities probably would not have the desired effect, Hurst said.

"The dilution would still be (of great effect), and the water's chlorinated so you'll have some oxidizing effect," Hurst said. "I can't conceive of a terrorist having a large enough quantity of nerve agent or anything else to do any real harm."

Ed Thompson, Mississippi's state health officer, also said waterborne contamination would be a very difficult operation to carry out. The more likely any contamination is, the smaller the number of people that could be affected, he said.

The automated nature of much of today's food processing and packaging makes adding contaminants that much more difficult, several people said. Even fresh produce is somewhat resistant, given that chemicals or organisms potent enough to resist being washed off vegetables likely would discolor the plants or otherwise advertise their existence, allowing people to avoid the contamination.

Even if tainted food manages to make it past inspectors into the home, it still has not reached the point of carrying out a terrorist's mission, Thompson said.

"We handle food in ways designed to eliminate pathogens," he said. "If you contaminate raw meat, more than likely a biological agent will be killed if it's properly cooked."

A family's best defense against intentional contamination is the same set of common-sense food-handling rules that ward off the occasional natural occurrence of bacteria and disease:

-- Wash your hands before starting to prepare food and when switching tasks, such as going from cutting raw meat to working with produce.

-- Use clean containers to hold washed items, especially produce -- original containers can recontaminate food.

-- Cook meat and leftovers thoroughly, using a meat thermometer to check interior temperatures: 160 degrees Fahrenheit for ground beef, at least 145 degrees for roasts and steaks, between 165 degrees and 180 degrees for poultry, at least 160 degrees for pork, 160 degrees for egg dishes and 165 degrees for leftovers. More detailed lists are available at the and Web sites.

Illness occurring after a meal is not always a reason for concern, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. But watch out for diarrhea accompanied by unusual symptoms, such as a fever of over 101.5 degrees, bloody stools, and ongoing vomiting that prevents a person from retaining fluids or signs of dehydration. The CDC recommends people with such symptoms see a doctor and report the situation to the local health department immediately.

As for the authorities reacting to intentional food contamination, we already have seen examples in recalls of beef products suspected of harboring E. coli, Thompson said. As soon as public health officials spotted a disease outbreak and tracked the source to food, the U.S. food industry's ability to track shipments by supermarket chain and lot number would help the public avoid further tainted supplies, he said.

"There's no question that, while there are better ways to convey detailed information, in terms of communicating with the public, we would rely on the media," Thompson said. "As for getting info to doctors, hospitals and other emergency information, we have more direct means, such as blast faxes to every doctor in the state, or e-mail to every hospital."

Preparing for the possibility of a major terrorist incident is a fairly straightforward proposition, according to Tee Guidotti, a senior member of George Washington University Medical Center's School of Public Health in Washington.

"The same disaster-management kit that one would normally have for tornadoes, earthquakes or severe storms is likely to be adequate," Guidotti told UPI. "You want to have a food supply that lasts a couple of days, you want a flashlight, you certainly want to have a battery-operated radio, so that in the event of a combined assault, communications won't be a problem."

Keep several gallons of bottled water on hand, several experts said. Water purification filters also are available in locations such as outdoor supply stores, if you expect to rely on tap water at some point during periods of biological contamination. Such kits, however, are less effective against chemical agents, as are water purification tablets.

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Surviving a Chemical attack, Part II: Bioattack manageable

Surviving a Chemical attack, Part I: Act fast

© 2003, United Press International