The need for increased wastewater security measures across the country


The Red Cedar River winding its way through Michigan State/ Photo Credit: MSU University Communications

Chelsie Boodoo, Host of The Sci-Files

On Feb. 8th, 2021, there was a cyber-attack with the purpose of poisoning the water treatment system in the Tampa Bay area by the city of Oldsmar, Florida. The hacker accessed the system remotely to increase sodium hydroxide levels from 100 parts per million (ppm) to 11,100 ppm, which is over 100 times the normal amount.  Sodium hydroxide is also known as lye, is a white waxy powder that dissolves in water. It is commonly used in the water industry as a drain cleaner, but it is used to treat drinking water for purification and increase its pH. 

Luckily for the 15,000 residents of Oldsmar, an operator noticed the sodium hydroxide levels change immediately, so there was no harm done. If the hacker were successful, this would have been detrimental to the water consumers along with wildlife and the environment. With sodium hydroxide poisoning, people would experience complications with their lungs, esophagus, and stomach. If the water had contact with their eyes like in the shower, it could have caused blindness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the significance of biological security and the importance of strengthening security strategies to decrease risks. However, other threats need to be considered, such as chemical and cybersecurity. Due to this frightening event in Oldsmar, national recommendations have been made to increase cybersecurity in water and wastewater treatment systems. Some of these recommendations entail multiple-factor authentication, training users to identify and report attacks like how the operator did in Oldsmar, as well as installing anti-virus, spam filters, and firewalls. 

Now that there is a rising awareness of the flaws in the water and wastewater system security, there are recommendations to have physical protective security measures where the operators can physically access the system if hacked. By increasing our water and wastewater security measures, we can protect people, wildlife, and nature, by preventing an attack like this from happening again.