Terrorism and Other Public Health Threats - Food and Water Contamination
Chemicals, heavy metals
like lead and mercury, and living organisms such as bacteria and viruses can
all be threats to a safe water supply. These substances can also contaminate
Unintentional contamination of water as a result of chemical
leaks or spills, natural disasters, and other causes has been a much bigger
problem than deliberate contamination. Likewise, accidental food contamination
by botulinum toxin (the agent that causes
E. coliE. coli, and other harmful
organisms during the storage or preparation of food is much more likely than
intentional food poisoning.
Intentional poisoning of food and
water has occurred, though. The use of food and water to expose people to
biological or chemical weapons is also possible. Terrorists could release
living organisms such as the bacteria that cause
tularemia or botulism into the water or food supply.
Hazardous chemicals could be deliberately released in liquid or solid form.
Radioactive materials could be released into the water.
What you can do
With the exception of a known
accident (such as a chemical spill into the water supply) or an announced
terrorist or criminal incident, you probably would not know that you had
consumed contaminated water or food unless you developed symptoms. To reduce
your risk of consuming contaminated food or water and to be better prepared for
public health emergencies affecting the water supply:
- Don't eat food or drink water or any other
beverage that looks or smells suspicious. In general, it is not a good idea to
eat or drink something when you don't know who has prepared or provided it or
where it has come from.
- When shopping, avoid food or beverage items
that look like they may have been tampered with—for instance, if the seal is
broken or you think that the container or packaging has been
- Remember that most cases of food poisoning, including
botulism, happen by accident. Follow guidelines for preparing and cooking food
safely, keeping your kitchen clean, and washing your hands and utensils. If you
preserve and can foods at home, learn and follow proper canning and freezing
techniques to ensure safety. Discard cans or jars with bulging lids or
- Know where your household's water comes from. Is it from the
city water supply? Most public water supplies are carefully monitored and
treated to guard against contamination. Does a private well supply your water?
Private water supplies are unlikely to be targets of intentional contamination.
But they can become contaminated by accident and may not be as closely
monitored as city water supplies.
- Consider storing
emergency water and food supplies.
how to purify water. And make sure that you include the supplies for this in
your emergency kit. Knowing how to purify water is useful in any situation
where you have to rely on untreated water.
If there is an emergency affecting the water
- Follow all instructions from local
purifying your water (commonly called "boil orders")
or using other water sources until authorities notify your community that it is
safe to drink from the regular water supply again.
- Do not strictly
emergency drinking water supplies. Try not to waste
any water, but drink what you need. On average, a person needs about
2 qt (2 L) of water a day.
Individual water needs vary depending on age, health, diet, and climate. Learn
the signs of
dehydration in children and
adults so that you know what to watch
- Use the safest water you have first before turning to other
- If you know or suspect that your skin has come in
direct contact with water that has been contaminated by a hazardous chemical or
radiation fallout, follow the steps for
personal decontamination to get the substance off your
body as completely and quickly as possible.