By SABRA CHARTRAND I New York Times 3/10/2000
HOMELAND security includes safe drinking fountains.
In January, officials at the Super Bowl knew that the game, a symbol of American culture that packed tens of thousands of people into one place, made an ideal target for terrorists. So Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego was blanketed with video cameras, metal detectors at every gate and swarms of security guards and bouncers. Air space was also regulated -- all in an effort to prevent anything from gunfire to bombs to an airborne attack.
But officials also knew that terrorists could take a page from a spy thriller and poison the stadium's water supply with bacteria or chemicals.
So outside the stadium, behind a cluster of flagpoles and palm trees and a chain link fence, stood a portable shed housing a machine the size of a small refrigerator. A computer monitor rested on the machine, from which black tubing not much bigger than a garden hose stretched to a large industrial pipe nearby.
It was the lone pipe carrying water into the stadium, where fans and workers lined up at drinking fountains, used bathroom sinks and ate food prepared in stadium kitchens.
The black hose drew a stream from that water main and fed it into the machine in the shed, where laser beams scanned it for micro-organisms. The machine was looking for pathogens like E. coli or anthrax, or particles that it could not identify but knew should not be present in ordinary drinking water.
The system sent a stream of data to computer screens not far away.
"We have data from every five seconds of water that went into the Super Bowl," said Dr. Gregory Quist, one of two inventors who received a patent in February for the system of instantaneously identifying dangerous particles in water.
Water is traditionally tested for purity by taking a sample, isolating organisms and culturing them in a laboratory for a day or more to determine whether they are harmful.
"In the case of a bioterrorism attack, that's far too late for any remedial action," said Dr. Quist, who is also president and founder of PointSource Technologies, in Escondido, Calif., which owns the patent. "The stadium was very well secured; there were people every 20 feet, security and military forces, people checking everyone, but the pipe carrying water was unprotected and someone upstream could have attacked it."
He added, "Our device can give those results in real time, and continuously, at the point of entry."
The patented system relies on a laser beam to identify micro-organisms in water.
"A side stream of water, which we assume to be representative of the water in general, passes through a laser beam," Dr. Quist explained. "As it passes through the beam, light is scattered. We gather the light and, using a mathematical technique, we can determine what kind of particle it is by its shape, size and internal composition."
The descriptions, he continued, "are unique in general for different types of micro-organisms. E. coli looks different from campylobacteria or cholera. The laser beam picks up one particle at a time, so if there's one bad particle, we can find it.
"It's like being in a dusty room and seeing the dust particles in a sunbeam," he said. "If a trained microbiologist can look at it with a microscope and tell the differences, then our system can tell the differences."
One organism commonly found in water is algae.
"The amount of algae goes up and down, depending on the time of year, temperature of the water, chlorination," Dr. Quist said. "But that doesn't harm anyone, it just makes the water taste bad.
"Things like E. coli and anthrax we can pick out from other biological backgrounds like algae, and make a distinction between what is bad and not bad," he added.
The system is not perfect. Pathogens like E. coli and shigella are "very difficult to tell apart," he said, and so far the company's software has only half a dozen organisms in its database.
More importantly, the system scans for living bio-organisms, but not for chemicals. If water was poisoned with chemicals, the system would only tag them as foreign or unidentified.
"Even though there may be an infinite number of possibilities that bad guys can put in water, if it is different than what is ordinarily there, our system can profile it and we can see the change," Dr. Quist said. "If the particles we have identified skyrocket, or if unidentified particles skyrocket, or if there is a change in the water, then we can detect that."
The chief executive of PointSource, Salah Hassanein, said the technology was originally developed for detecting contamination in industries like pharmaceuticals, food manufacturing, agriculture and fisheries. The company has 16 patents pending for related technologies, he added.
"It's a detection system more than an antiterrorism system," Mr. Hassanein said.
But these days, detection is an antiterrorism weapon. "We built it for peacetime, and then all of a sudden 9/11 happened," Dr. Quist said. "And it happened that what we were doing could be applied to defense of the homeland."
PointSource's system is also being tested at a Los Angeles water utility, and in a study with the American Waterworks Association Research Foundation, Dr. Quist said. He and another inventor, Hanno Ix, received patent 6,519,033.