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Hacker Accessed, Made Changes to Florida Water System

The city of Oldsmar’s water supply was the target of a remote attempt to raise the levels of sodium hydroxide — more commonly known as lye — by more than 100 times the normal level, before being noticed by an operator.

Water treatment plant
(TNS) — A hacker, who attempted to raise levels of sodium hydroxide in the city of Oldsmar, Florida’s water supply, put thousands at risk of being poisoned, officials said.

A CNN report said that according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, on Friday a hacker gained access into the city’s water treatment system and “adjusted the level of sodium hydroxide” - commonly known as lye - “to more than 100 times the normal level.”

According to Gualtieri, an operator who noticed the intrusion and had watched the hacker access the system remotely, immediately reduced the level back, the report said.

CNN cited Gualtieri who noted that “at no time was there a significant adverse effect to the city’s water supply, and the public was never in danger.”


According to CNN, it is unknown if the hacker was someone local, national or even outside of the U.S.

CNN cited Gualtieri, who said: “This is somebody who is trying, as it appears on the surface, to do something bad. It’s a bad act. It’s a bad actor.” He added, “This isn’t just ‘Oh, we’re putting a little bit of chlorine or a little bit of fluoride, or a little bit of something,’ we’re basically talking about lye that you are taking from 100 parts per million to 11,100.”

CNN cited Robert M. Lee, the CEO of Dragos Inc., an industrial cybersecurity company, who noted that “early intervention prevented the attack from having more serious consequences,” - but, he said, “this type of attack is precisely what keeps industry experts awake at night.”

“It was not particularly sophisticated, but it’s exactly what folks worry about and as one of a very few examples of someone making an attempt to hurt people, it’s a big deal for that reason,” Lee said.

There were some safety measures in place.

CNN noted that the city has taken steps to guard against further access into the system.

Had the hacker been successful in their attempt, Gualtieri said it would have taken “24-36 hours for the water to reach the system,” and in the meantime, “several redundancies are in place” that would have alerted of the excessive sodium hydroxide levels, before that happened, CNN cited.


Gualtieri said that the breach is being jointly investigated by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, FBI and Secret Service, while “the FBI’s field office in Tampa is working with Oldsmar and the sheriff’s office, offering resources and assistance in the investigation,” CNN noted.

CNN stated that it has reached out to the Secret Service for comment.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted on Monday that he wants the hacking of the water treatment system handled as a national security measure.

“I will be asking the @FBI to provide all assistance necessary in investigating an attempt to poison the water supply of a #Florida city,” the tweet read. “This should be treated as a matter of national security.”


According to Gualtieri, sodium hydroxide “is the main ingredient in liquid drain cleaner,” CNN noted.

CNN cited the University of Florida Health System’s list of symptoms associated with sodium hydroxide poisoning, which includes: “breathing difficulties, lung inflammation, throat swelling, burning of the esophagus and stomach, severe abdominal pain, vision loss, and low blood pressure.”

The UF Health overview added: “Long-term effects of poisoning depend on how fast the poison is diluted or neutralized in the system. Damage to the esophagus and stomach can continue to occur for several weeks after the poison was swallowed. Death can occur as long as a month later,” CNN cited.

Had the hacker been successful in their attempt to poison the Oldsmar water supply, CNN said it is unknown if the increased levels of sodium hydroxide would have led to any of these symptoms.

©2021 The Patriot-News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.