Fish Monitors Water for Contamination

America's war on terrorism has a new foot soldier. But it doesn't actually have feet. A hyper-sensitive little fish is a key part of a high-tech system for monitoring public water supplies.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

America's war on terrorism has a new foot soldier, but it doesn't actually have feet. We're talking about hypersensitive little fish that are key part of high tech systems for monitoring public water supplies.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales report, it's a new take on a very old idea.

RICHARD GONZALES: Since ancient times, fish have been used to monitor water quality, but you wouldn't know there's a problem with the water supply until you saw fish floating dead. And by that time, you might not be feeling so well yourself.

It's important to detect the presence of toxins early, before the fish get sick and die. And that's where a device designed by a small company outside San Diego comes in.

It really is, you can see there's not much to it. I mean the stars of the show are really right here, the bluegill.

GONZALES: I'm standing with Bill Lawler, a co-founder of Intelligent Automation Corporation, or IAC, a small high-tech firm in Poway, California. He's pointing at a small aquarium gussied up with tubes, cables and a computer.

Eight freshwater bluegills about the size of your index fingers swim in individual chambers not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes.

Mr. BILL LAWLER (Intelligent Automation Corporation): Now, you can see above and below the fish here, we have these carbon sensors. And what those are doing, are they're really detecting the tiny electrical signals the fish generate as they breathe and swim. And you can see them turn around in the chamber and do things like that.

GONZALES: The electrical signals are amplified and sent to the computer, where you can read the fish movements like an EKG.

Mr. LAWLER: You can see right here there's a - examples of the fish -normal breathing patterns, and that's actually a cough right there.

GONZALES: You say the fish coughs?

Mr. LAWLER: The fish coughs, yeah. There's a little peak right here in the signal that you can tell that he coughs.

GONZALES: And when a fish coughs, that's a sign of stress, no matter what the source.

Mr. LAWLER: And then we alert a human to come down and take a look at what's going on and pretty much in a nutshell that's it.

GONZALEZ: So you're monitoring fish stress.

Mr. LAWLER: Fish stress. That's exactly right.

GONZALES: Lawler says the idea came from a system developed by the Army. But that one required a truckload of equipment. Lawler's device fits on a desktop. But the high-tech system depends on the sensitivity of those little bluegill, which, as it turns out, have amazing eyesight.

Mr. LAWLER: You - holding the microphone - they're registering here on the computer screen, the fact that I've my microphone close to the (unintelligible) yeah, looks like number five there is kind of checking you out.

GONZALES: So far, New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco use this device. But since 9/11 water security is a touchy subject. And the cities don't like to talk about their security systems.

In San Francisco, one of the city's top water officials, Michael Carlin, will say that fish are great watchdogs and can pick up even minute variations in water quality.

Mr. MICHAEL CARLIN (Water Official, San Francisco): We're looking for those variations and whether or not they're just a minor variation in water quality or a true terrorist threat, it's much more sophisticated than just the Roman era when they just would look at the fish and see if they would die or not.

GONZALES: Well, some called the bluegills terror detectors, back in Poway, Bill Lawler says he's more concerned with the fish's overall reliability. So far they've never issued a false alarm. And that's good, he says, because no one wants a fish that cries wolf.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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