View Full Version : Tainted Water Supply

Katrina S. Forest
06-25-2010, 06:34 AM
I'm working on a sci-fi story, and I'm trying to figure out if my plot is even remotely plausible. EDIT: See post #13 for my revised explanations.

The story takes place in a fictitious town called New Place (not final name, but I can't think of a better name right now), in a near-future United States. An outside company mistakenly dumps toxic chemicals into the town reservoir. The toxin seems to only affect humans. The tainted water quickly is taken in by local plants and animals, making any local products unsafe to consume. Experts have been trying to identify the toxin, but have been unable to find a way either to filter it out of the water or to produce an antidote for those who accidental ingest it. The poison generally kills the person within a few minutes, cutting off their breathing. It only takes a small amount to kill someone, but it is not absorbed through the skin. It is possible that very tiny amounts would not kill, but because of the prevalence of the poison, most incidents of people ingesting the poison are deadly.

New Place is then placed under quarantine - nothing can be shipped out, and only government vehicles are allowed in. While the government has been supplying the city with bottled water and basic necessities, many citizens feel the supplies are insufficient for their wants or needs. Some people attempt to produce additional food, while others are transporters, arranging with clients to pick up packages at the city's border and then delivering them. (The security at the border is mainly heat-activated, so packages can be smuggled in and out much more easily than people.) The quarantine is meant for safety only, with everyone from outside the city afraid of contamination themselves. The company that infected the water supply is still unknown and would like to stay that way. However, not wanting to be responsible for the city's collapse, they attempt to devise a way to cure the city of the poison without publicly admitting their mistake.

Thoughts? If it's not plausible, what changes would have to take place in the world or the society to make it so? Thanks so much!

06-25-2010, 03:27 PM
The first question that popped into my head was, if the company wants to anonymously rectify the situation, why don't they just anonymously let the authorities know what the toxin is? So unless it's something that is so unique as to lead the authorities to the company, both problems are solved. And I'm not sure there's a toxin that unique (I'm not that knowledgeable about such things to say). So the company having a conscience would be a story problem for me.

06-25-2010, 07:46 PM
Seems to me, the CDC or whoever, would check the water supply first, as soon as they determined a toxin caused the deaths. Once the water supply is identified as the source, it would be isolated. All products containing water from that supply would be collected and destroyed. I would see no reason for forbidding the people to leave. I could see a quarantine on entering the city.

The investigators would search for every source of contamination to the water, including your benevolent company. They would collect samples of whatever the company discharges.

Noah Body
06-25-2010, 07:59 PM
Yeah, the only reason to establish a cordon sanitaire is if there's an infectious contagion at work.

06-25-2010, 08:44 PM
Right. The people can't infect other people - so EVACUATE the town. Then start tracing the toxin.

06-25-2010, 09:33 PM
So you might make it a toxin produced by bacteria or mold. If the microorganism s living in the reservoir, it would release the toxin. It would completely change the plot, but it would be possible. There are molds that produce extremely toxin materials. It wouldn't take long for the source to be discovered, but eliminating the mold could be difficult.

06-26-2010, 01:35 AM
This scenario sounds somewhat similar to the Walkerton Tragedy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walkerton_Tragedy).

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the SARS virus can also be transmitted in improperly treated water. That could be cause for a quarantine.

Smiling Ted
06-26-2010, 05:01 AM
This scenario sounds somewhat similar to the Walkerton Tragedy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walkerton_Tragedy).

AlsoThe Hot Zone, Jericho, etc.
I'm not saying you can't do it - just that this is twice-trod territory, so be sure your story has a new take.

06-26-2010, 05:19 AM
AlsoThe Hot Zone, Jericho, etc.

...Except that the Walkerton Tragedy was a real event. I meant that it could be mined for inspiration.

Katrina S. Forest
06-26-2010, 05:32 AM
Thanks for the feedback, and the suggestions. Most people who were reading this thing said they liked the story itself, but the setting made no sense. I'll see what I can do to improve that.

06-26-2010, 09:49 AM
I agree with everyone else. These people would not be quarantined since they are not infectious. If you want them to be quarantined, either use an infectious disease or have the government unable to figure out what is causing all these deaths (by your description of the toxicity of the toxin, I would expect the death tole to be really high).

If a large number of people suddenly died in a single town, I think the government would quarantine them until they figured out what was killing them because it could be an infectious disease. So make it hard for the government to trace the deaths to the drinking water.

Mac H.
06-26-2010, 10:48 AM
I have a few thoughts that bother me about it:

1. You explain that it is instantly fatal to a human but has zero effect on every other life form.

It just doesn't seem plausible. I'd believe that it doesn't instantly kill animals, but the idea of it being so instantly lethal to one species but zero effect on others just doesn't seem plausible.
You could fix that by having it a bit more complicated. eg: Domestic cats & dogs seem fine but for some reason birds and rodents get sick and die. Nobody really understands why, but it is more complex than just 'all or nothing'.

2. Why isn't the town evacuated? Remember, we don't understand exactly what it is - it could turn out to have long term health effects over the next few years even without ingesting it - probably even killing everyone over the next few years. The CDC simply don't know.

Look at the announcement at Chernobyl: "There has been a radiation incident at the power station. As a precaution, there will be a temporary evacuation."

Of course - it was a lie. They were just told it was a temporary evacuation because they didn't want people to bring baggage.

I don't really believe that there would be such an instantly lethal event and the place wouldn't be evacuated.

As the author, of course, you can convince me as part of the story. Have the CDC insist on doing it but get overridden - perhaps due to more political constraints.


Katrina S. Forest
06-26-2010, 03:53 PM
Thanks again! Probably should've mentioned, I'm not married to the summaries I've written. I really just need three facts to be true (listed below), and how that comes about doesn't matter much to me. Here's my revised explanations:

Fact 1: People in the town are becoming ill/dying from consuming the water and many local foods, such as vegetables and milk.

Explanation: The water has become tainted with some sort of microbes that can kill humans and many other animals. Only a few creatures are immune, but these do include cows and several fruit-bearing plants, which can spread the microbes to other creatures that consume them.

Fact 2: The city is under quarantine. People cannot come and go, but packages can sometimes be sneaked in.

Explanation: There have been reports of people spreading the microbes to each other through close contact. Afraid that it might spread to larger populations, the government orders the quarantine. (I know, futuristic paranoid government is a trope, but that's my best reasoning now.)

Fact 3: Someone has learned how to make a cure, but wants to share that information privately.

Explanation: The person and/or company responsible for this whole mess is terrified of being found out, but also wants to save everyone. So they send directions for how to create the cure anonymously to someone inside the city.

Does this work better, or are there some major logic flaws that I'm missing? Thanks again!

06-26-2010, 04:59 PM
Maybe the company did not contaminate the water supply, but is testing genetic modifications on plants. This could be a small farming community, the company controls the local seed company as well as offering free seed to this test market. Etc, etc.

The government is involved because some of the genetic modifications are supposed to create changes in people to make them super soldiers. This is why they quarantine the area, they are afraid the people that have been eating the plants will be too dangerous.

Of course the genetic modifications don't have the expected effects.

The government tells many lies about contaminated water, infectious diseases, etc in order to hold the quarantine.

06-26-2010, 05:19 PM
To expand on hammerklavier's suggestion, perhaps the company responsible for the dangerous modifications to the local plant life has been working on gene modification in that area for a while. Previous crops could have been successfully modified without government knowledge, and the company is afraid that if word gets out that they have been gene splicing the creamed corn, the resulting recall would result in economic collapse.

You could also add some plausibility as to why it was affecting mainly humans by claiming that the plants were engineered specifically for human consumption, and that other animals lack the proper enzymes to metabolize the toxins. You could also initially disguise the quarantine as an export ban, and get all sneaky with it.