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Advancing the Science and Engineering of Decontamination

Using innovative science and engineering, EPA's research is improving the response to anthrax incidents.

Workers in hazmat suits examining containment barrels.

In late February 2012, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were part of a news story that was decidedly not funny. Both of them, along with a number of other media outlets and several members of the U.S. Congress, received threatening mail containing white powder. "The FBI is aware of this situation and is responding accordingly," said FBI spokesman Chris Allen at the time. Thankfully, the substance inside the menacing letters turned out to be harmless. The incident, however, serves as a pointed reminder of the need for constant vigilance in the fight against terrorism.

In the ten years since the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent mailing of a series of anthrax-laced letters (the "Amerithrax" incident) to two U.S. Senators and several media outlets, causing the deaths of several postal workers, the homeland security and emergency response communities have worked tirelessly to prevent further incidents and to be better prepared in the event one does occur. EPA's Homeland Security Research Program has been an integral part of that effort.

EPA is the lead federal agency responsible for remediating indoor and outdoor environments following incidents involving biological contamination. Established in 2002, EPA's Homeland Security Research Program (HSRP) provides the research that supports operations for Agency and partner activities in that area. Thanks to these activities, if the threatening letters recently sent had contained anthrax, the nation would have been better prepared than it was ten years ago.

One lesson learned from the Amerithrax incident was that the nation lacked the collective capacity for analyzing environmental anthrax samples in the event of a terrorist incident. At that time, there were no standardized methods for sampling, detecting, and characterizing biological agents in environmental samples, meaning that inter-laboratory data could not be compared during and after a large-scale event.

To address those shortcomings, EPA helped establish and now manages the Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN), a collection of federal, state, and commercial laboratories that focus on responding quickly and consistently to potentially catastrophic events such as terrorist incidents involving chemical, biological, or radiological incidents, or natural disasters.

To support ERLN, EPA researchers released Selected Analytical Methods for Environmental Remediation and Recovery Following Homeland Security Events (PDF) (222 pp, 1.6MB, About PDF), a publication outlining selected methods for measuring specific contaminants that might be associated with a terrorist attack. Included are methods for evaluating the nature and extent of contamination and for assessing the efficacy of decontaminants.

The publication presents an innovative test method that EPA researchers developed—a Rapid Viability Polymerase Chain Reaction protocol—that speeds up analysis and eliminates waste, compared to traditional culture methods. Labs using the new method are able to confirm anthrax presence and viability from a number of samples, a critical need for a large-scale contamination event

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Another area where the impacts of EPA research are paying dividends is during cleanup activities, particularly remediation and waste management. Two examples of this are real-world biological incidents where musicians were exposed to anthrax spores from the animal hides used to make drums. Working with EPA Regional response personnel, HSRP scientists and engineers identified the most effective remediation methods to remove anthrax from the musicians' homes and work areas.

On a parallel track, researchers have been assisting EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention by verifying what decontaminants registered by manufacturers under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act are most effective.

Advances in science and technology research culminated in the Bio-response Operational Testing and Evaluation (BOTE) program, co-led by EPA and the Department of Homeland Security. BOTE was conducted in 2011 as a two-phase field demonstration project designed to collect scientific and technical information on various decontamination techniques for anthrax. This information will be used to continue refining approaches and products that can be used to cost-effectively decontaminate buildings and outdoor areas.

In Phase 1 of BOTE, EPA researchers evaluated three decontamination methods: fumigation with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, fumigation with chlorine dioxide, and a treatment process including the use of pH-adjusted bleach spraying. In Phase 2, a response and remediation exercise was conducted at a facility contaminated with anthracis simulants. Phase 2 remediation decisions included information from Phase 1 with respect to decontamination efficacy, waste management, and overall cost. (It also included results from the laboratory testing of other decontaminants such as methyl bromide, which was ultimately used to fumigate the facility.) Results of the BOTE field studies will be published later this year.

"Through applied research and technical support programs such as these, HSRP is increasing the readiness and capacity of the nation's laboratories and advancing the analysis of decontamination technologies. In the BOTE project, EPA scientists are providing information that will have real impact should we need to respond to any future anthrax incidents. Although a best case scenario would be to never fully realize that impact, it's great to know we are better prepared," said Erica Canzler, the Director of EPA's National Decontamination Team in the Agency's Office of Emergency Management.

Editor's Note: EPA's Homeland Security Research Program was featured in the September, 2011 issue of "Science Matters." Click here to learn more.

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