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Credit: Photos: Kingwood Diagnostics

Above: The water flea Daphnia magna is at the heart of the IQ-Tox kit, which detects the presence of toxins in water. Below, right: When the water they are in is free of toxins, Daphnia magna will fluoresce under ultraviolet light; in the presence of toxins, the glowing stops.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, water department managers became keenly aware of their facilities' vulnerability. Since then, they have put in place a range of measures, from physical features protecting buildings to tests that detect the presence of toxins in their water supply. Now, in large cities like New York City and more modest burgs like Altoona, Pa., tiny soldiers are lighting the way in the fight against terror.

The IQ-Tox threat detection test from Flemington, N.J.-based Kingwood Diagnostics uses Daphnia magna—a species of water flea—to alert technicians to the presence of toxins in water. There are a number of other tests that make use of fleas and other organisms, but this one is unique: the fleas glow.

Kingwood Diagnostics president Carlos Murawczyk said that in the IQ-Tox test kit, the fleas are fed a sugar modified with an enzyme. When a healthy flea not subjected to toxins feeds on the substance, it will fluoresce under ultraviolet light. If a toxin is present, it will inhibit the fleas' digestive process and cause the glowing to cease. The results take a little more than one hour to develop, versus the 48 hours that other, more traditional toxicity tests take.

Also, according to Murawczyk, the IQ-Tox test offers a benefit by focusing on detecting levels that are toxic, but not necessarily lethal. “There are hundreds of compounds that can be toxic to humans, and it doesn't take a lot to make you sick,” he said. “Botulinum only takes one-third of a gallon in a million gallons of water to drop you dead, but to be disruptive, you'd only need enough to make people sick. If a crazy person wants to make all of Chicago sick, that would be plenty.”

Three years ago, the company presented the product to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in response to the agency's call for rapid-detection technologies. The product was the only technology submitted that successfully detected all of the toxins on the list of contaminants challenged by the EPA. However, Murawczyk cautions, the test is not a “silver bullet”—it does not detect bacteria or radiation.

Since its introduction, the list of municipalities using the test has grown to include Pittsburgh, New York City, San Francisco, Trenton (N.J.) and, most recently, Altoona, population 47,832.

“There are 13 reservoirs here in Altoona, and people are always asking, ‘What if something gets put in the water? How would you know?'” said Ken Streilien, chief lab technician with the Altoona City Authority. “Basically, we didn't know.”

After the Authority received literature profiling the IQ-Tox test, staff presented a proposal to their board, approving its purchase in January. The initial equipment invested amounted to $4000; annual upkeep will be around $10,000. The test will supplement the agency's current security plans, which include regular vulnerability assessments.

In addition, agencies in Puerto Rico, Canada, and Australia are using the test at their facilities.