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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 food.

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 botulism), 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 opened.
  • 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 leaks.
  • 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.
  • Learn 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 supply:

  • Follow all instructions from local authorities about 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 ration 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 for.
  • Use the safest water you have first before turning to other water sources.
  • 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.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 16, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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