Water Pollutants


Date: 27 Nov 1998 08:39:57 GMT

From: "Jacob Busby Bsc." <ku.vog.stnah|BJCDTI#ku.vog.stnah|BJCDTI>

On a similar theme, what material (and how much would you need) to poison or irradiate the nearest reservoir? How long would the water be undrinkable?

Date: Fri, 27 Nov 1998 13:20:53 +0100
From: Davide Mana

Time to shine the old Environmental Data Analyst background

Maybe I'm too conservative, but I would not use nuclear material to poison water; there's lots of other stuff you can use that's easier to get, safer to handle and just as nasty:

ammonia (easily degradable, causes brief problems, but hey…)
cadmium (a nice one, this: more than 6 parts per million are considered index of High Pollution by EPA standards)
arsenic (the worst - highly toxic and with a way long permanence time in the ecosystem; 8 ppm mean Highly Polluted by EPA standards)
mercury (another killer: 1 ppm is considered High Pollution by the EPA)

Just go for the azchem of your choice, even if (as I fear it shows) I'm partial to metals. This way, the poisoning can always be interpreted as depending on malpractice or plain hu man stupidity. You walk away with no problems, while people gets some really nasty effects (a lot of metals get concentrated in the body fat and make up your very own Toxic Time Bomb).

The quantity depends on the volume of the reservoir, but usually we are working with a few parts per million.

[so that to poison a 1 million litres water reservoir you'll need less than 1 litre of mercury]

This depends again on the volume of the reservoir, and also on the mixing of the reservoir and on the inputs and outputs of water. You'll have to calculate how long it takes for the whole water mass to be renewed.

The material of the reservoir is also important, natural reservoirs being generally better at cleaning themselves than artificial tanks: clay in a lake can act as a sponge and collect by adsorption a good part of the stuff you pour in.

[on the other hand, the stuff adsorbed and concentrated by clay stays there, becoming a "Toxic Time Bomb", you only need to mobilize it (during a flood, for instance) to cause real trouble - Toxicity Spike is the name of the game]

The worst case is a big concrete reservoir for rainwater, of the kind used in some cases for irrigation purposes. There are no currents, no constant freshwater input, no clay to filter the stuff. A chemical (or some fixile stuff) "dropped" in the water can pollute it almost indefinitely. You water the crops and…

Different materials have different permanence times in the system. As already noted, Ammonia is bad but goes pretty fast, while Cadmium is a killer and has a long permanence time.

A few other infos in this sense can probably be gathered at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) web-site. I hope I remember the right URL


should do the trick.

Date: Fri, 27 Nov 1998 07:21:50 -0800
From: Phil A Posehn

I presume that you mean Methyl-mercury.

Metalic mercury can sit there in the water quite harmlessly, doing little other than forming an amalgam with any gold that comes its way for centuries…as most California gold miners know.

Methyl-mercury and soluable mercury salts on the other hand, are very nasty indeed!!

So is the vapor in a poorly ventelated area.

The miners in the Almaden mine in Spain were only allowed something like 16 hours a month underground and still ovten had to spend 12 hours in a sauna sweating out the mercury.

Date: Sat, 28 Nov 1998 03:02:31 +1100
From: Rob Shankly

Of course, the traditional thing is a Colour Out of Space….


- mercury (another killer: 1 ppm is considered High Pollution by the EPA)


The quantity depends on the volume of the reservoir, but usually we are
working with a few parts per million.
[so that to poison a 1 million litres water reservoir you'll need less than
1 litre of mercury]


My back-of-envelope calculation says a reservoir of 3km x 1km, average depth 10m, would require 30 litres of Mercury. If I remember correctly Mercury has density of about 13.5, so our poison would weigh >400kg (900lbs, more or less). How easy is it to obtain that much heavy metal?

As an aside, it is quite challenging to do a net search on "Mercury" without ploughing up a collection of sites dealing with the dangers of dental amalgam. These people clearly don't think about the risks of infected teeth. But that's another topic.

Does anyone have any clues as to the amount of bio-weapon required to affect a reservoir? Types and delivery method?

Date: Fri, 27 Nov 1998 17:17:56 +0100
From: Davide Mana

Phil A. Posehn rightly observed


I did not think it could cause any confusion, but sure, I meant salt or other soluble forms of the elements mentioned. Dropping a brick of silver in a pond is not a good way to poison it, while a few fistfuls of silver salts….

[you want insoluble killer particles? I can give you that too… but you'll have to breathe them, not to drink them]

But just in case, let's not forget other stuff that can come in handy…

Naphtalene and other IPAs produced by hidrocarbons combustion
Aromatic solvents like Toluene and Benzene
Various other Aromatic Compounds, including Chlorine or Nitrogen compounds and Eterocyclical compounds
[is there a chemist in the house?]

All of the above are routinely found in rivers and other water courses, and all can be cancerogenic _at best_.

Their concentrations are usually measured in parts per billion, so you get a pretty idea of what it takes to kill off a medium sized city. Also, all these compounds have the nasty habit of being concentrated by the medium to fine sized sediments, so all can cause Toxic Time Bombs.

Incidentally, anyone living downriver from a fuel deposit is probably getting his fair share of the above and then some.

Date: Fri, 27 Nov 1998 11:54:57 -0500
From:Graeme Price

Depends (in the case of mercury). It's generally not available in large quantities, and asking for 400kg of elemental mercury (or salts) will raise eyebrows to say the least, but if you wanted to you could probably file an order with a chemical company, provided you could file the requisite paperwork. Checking with my handy chemical supply catalogue reveals the following data: Mercury, 99.999% pure: 500 g costs US$84.30… meaning that 400 kg will be roughly $67,440 (but you could probably arrange for a bulk discount. Yes. Really.).

Actually infected teeth are a quite different matter. In the antibiotic age, they really don't pose that much of a problem - other than cosmetic. Of course, a lot of antibiotic resistance genes are switched on by mercury (as part of the bacterial response to environmental stress)… so you're damned either way really!

Again, depends on what type of organism/toxin and reservoir size. Diffusion rate could be a problem (for toxins, especially) unless there is a strong current. Then you have stability issues, including whether or not the agent survives the treatment process. Putting the agent directly into the water mains (circumventing the treatment processes) would be a better option….

There are plenty of agents that could be used (botulinus toxin, the various staphylococcal toxins, hepatitis A and E viruses, Norwalk virus, Cholera, Giardia, Cryptosporidum etc.), but I have a suspicion that it's not quiet as easy to do as it would seem on paper.

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