January 18, 2009 By Jessica Jones, Contributing Writer
San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C., use technology that's intertwined with nature to protect their drinking water. By coughing, swimming at different depths in an aquarium and changing their movements and breathing, bluegills -- a small fish from the sunfish family -- set off an elaborate monitoring system that shows city officials when contaminants are present.
The bluegills are part of an aquatic monitoring system that alerts officials if there's anything foul in the drinking water. The fish react to toxins in the water, and their reactions -- such as bubbles from their coughing -- set off sensors to test the water for contaminants. The fish can detect toxic materials such as metals, cyanide, organic solvents and pesticides.
"We have a probe on there that looks at pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen -- those sorts of things," said Bill Lawler, vice president of sales and marketing for Intelligent Automation Corp. (IAC) -- recently acquired by Honeywell -- the company involved in the system's creation. "We want to make sure there are no other things in the water causing the fish to react."
Scientists at the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research in Fort Detrick, Md., are known for doing much of the basic research on the bluegill, Lawler said.
"They were the ones who started some of the early work monitoring water using bluegills. It was a real-time kind of thing where they would monitor and watch the reactions of the fish."
But even as early as 100 B.C., bluegills were placed in moats to monitor water, Lawler said, adding that he thinks a fair amount of municipalities use a more simplistic version of this technology. "They do it in a sense, not electronically monitoring," he said. "In other words, if the fish floats, the water's bad."
Tom Shedd, a research aquatic biologist at the Center for Environmental Health Research, and one of the scientists who helped create this system, noted the bluegill's history.
"Historically the fish have been shown to be a good indicator of toxicity in the water," he said, "but the problem was how to digest that information, put it all together and get rapid information out."
That's where IAC comes into play.
The technology that San Francisco, New York, Fort Detrick and Washington, D.C., use today -- the IAC 1090 Intelligent Aquatic BioMonitoring System -- was developed in partnership with the U.S. Army.
In October 2001, the Army began using the technology at Fort Detrick. That same year, IAC decided to commercialize it. The Army has a patent on the technology and IAC purchased the license.
It wasn't until spring 2004 that Fort Detrick had an incident. "We never really found the issue," Shedd said, "but the fish responded very aggressively, and we reacted to that appropriately."
Since then, there have been no incidents, but with the decline in the economy, Shedd said people will likely take more shortcuts with chemicals, increasing the chances of water contamination.
"It's just Tom Shedd talking, but with the downturn in the economy, a lot of people don't do the right thing with toxic, industrial chemicals," he said. "They have a tendency to find the easiest path to get rid of them -- an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of thing. As the economy turns down, there just isn't enough money to accomplish some of the environmentally relevant activities that you should be doing. I'm not saying it's a bad world out there, but there are some things folks can justify based on where they are in their current financial situation."
IAC worked with the Army by taking its concept and automating it through the IAC software and some electronics experts, to