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Characterizing Contamination and Determining Risk

EPA was designated as the lead federal agency for the remediation of areas contaminated by chemical, biological, or radiological agents. Characterizing site contamination is an important part of EPA's homeland security research program. Sampling protocols, sample preparation methods, and analytical methods are being developed and verified for agents likely to be used in a terrorist attack. Additional research supports risk assessment methodologies and crisis communication techniques.

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Overview

EPA's homeland security-related contaminant characterization research includes:

  • evaluating methods of wiping or sampling that can most effectively remove contaminants so they can be identified or quantified
  • developing protocols for screening unknown samples for chemical, radiological, or explosive hazards in specially designed All Hazards Receipt Facilities
  • developing, verifying, and validating specific methods for identifying chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) agents
  • using sophisticated instruments, plus computational methods, for direct or real-time measurement of CBR agents

If there is a terrorist attack, the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies will respond and secure the contaminated area.  

EPA will characterize the contamination and its extent using sampling and analytical methods that have been developed for use with CBR agents or closely related substances and organisms.  Samples will be sent to national network of federal, state, and private sector laboratories, the Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN) for rapid and accurate analysis.

Based on the characterization, EPA will determine whether a site can be remediated and estimate the cost of cleanup, which includes disposal of contaminated waste materials, including water.  Throughout the recovery process, samples will be collected and analyzed to determine if decontamination methods are effective.

In the event of a terrorist attack, information on minimizing risk and exposure will be made available to various audiences, including responders, healthcare professionals, volunteers, and members of the public. The form and content of the information will be based on risk communication techniques derived from scientific research.

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Sample Collection and Analytical Methods

During a homeland security emergency, rapidly determining the type and extent of chemical, biological, and radiological (CBR) contamination could require that large numbers of samples be analyzed by many laboratories. In order to generate comparable results, laboratories must use standardized analytical procedures. However, sampling and analytical methods have not been developed or tested for many of the possible CBR agents.

EPA is investigating sampling and sample preparation protocols, and developing and verifying analytical methods for CBR agents likely to be used in a terrorist attack.

To improve the national capability for responding to a homeland security emergency, the Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN) has been organized. This national network of federal, state, and accredited private sector laboratories can be ramped up as needed to support large scale environmental responses by providing consistent analytical capabilities, capacities, and quality data in a systematic, coordinated response.

Selected Analytical Methods (SAM)

To support the ERLN, EPA continues to update Selected Analytical Methods for Environmental Remediation and Recovery (SAM) 2012, which contains methods for identifying chemicals, radiochemicals, pathogens, and biotoxins that might be used in a terrorist attack.

SAM contains method summaries for biological, chemical, and radiochemical analytes. The summaries briefly describe the method, indicate analytical purpose, describe preparation, determinative techniques, and any special considerations. The summaries also describe the purpose for which the method was developed and the specific use for which it was included.

EPA has developed a searchable website for SAM. In addition to a SAM Methods Query that permits searches of the chemical, radiochemical, pathogen, and biotoxin analytical methods, the site also has full documentation of laboratory methods, when available, and links to technical contacts and key collaborators.

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Risk Assessment and Communication

Risk Assessment

Researchers provide the scientific basis for EPA's regulatory arm to establish provisional exposure levels or to guide the regulated community on establishing cleanup levels for re-entry or re-use of indoor and outdoor areas or resumed use  of water and wastewater infrastructure following a homeland security event.

EPA's homeland security research includes studies to assess and compile information on toxicity and dose-response for the many potential chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) agents that could be used in a terrorist attack on structures or outdoor areas.  The ability to effectively assess risks requires extensive knowledge about the properties of agents and how they affect human health. Methods for chemical risk assessment have been established. However, risk assessment for microbial agents that can replicate and spread disease remains a great scientific challenge.

In the event of a terrorist attack, the Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN), a national network of federal, state, and accredited private sector laboratories, would be ramped up to support large scale environmental responses by providing consistent analytical capabilities, capacities, and quality data in a systematic, coordinated response.

One challenge for laboratories is rapidly determining whether live biothreat agents are present at a site.  Being able to rapidly detect and identify, or rule out, the presence of live biological agents such as Bacillus anthracis is critical to characterizing contamination and planning a response.  Rapid-viability polymerase chain reaction (RV-PCR) methods are being developed and evaluated to use for samples collected with air filters, in water, and or on surfaces.

Risk assessment techniques for exposure to chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemical are used to establish health-based provisional exposure levels for responders and the public, including vulnerable groups like infants or the elderly. Risk assessment methodologies are also the basis for establishing provisional risk-based cleanup levels.

EPA developed the Support for Environmental Rapid Risk Assessment (SERRA) database, which enhances risk assessment by providing an extensive collection of scientific literature about CBR agents.  The information,  evaluated and extracted by subject matter experts, can be used for managing, cleaning up, and reducing the hazards encountered after a terrorist attack.  SERRA continues to be compiled. Those interested in using the SERRA database Exit EPA Disclaimer must register.

Communicating Risk

In the event of a terrorist attack, databases such as SERRA can provide information on minimizing risk and exposure that will be made available to various audiences, including responders,  healthcare professionals, volunteers, and members of the public.

Risk communicators use science-based tools developed by EPA and subject matter experts for developing crisis communication. One important tool is message mapping.  In message mapping, questions and concerns likely to be raised by different audiences are developed.  Then, detailed, hierarchically organized responses are written to address the questions, each supported by key information aimed at the particular audience.

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