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2012 EPA Research Progress Report

Protecting Drinking Water Supplies

Researchers conducted tests using this wind tunnel to determine that anthrax spores can reaerosolize, even after settling to the ground.

In 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a series of anthrax-tainted letters were mailed to broadcast news outlets and two U.S. Senators. While those letters and their lethal contents never reached the specific network personalities or Senators they targeted, 27 people who came into contact with them became infected with anthrax. Five of those individuals died. At least 17 buildings were contaminated with anthrax spores, requiring extensive building decontamination.

In the past ten years, EPA scientists and engineers have been at the forefront of research to ensure that the nation is ready to respond to any event involving the deliberate or accidental release of anthrax. These researchers, in collaboration with other federal agencies with homeland security responsibilities, are finding new ways to limit human exposure, treat water supplies, and decontaminate buildings and other structures to neutralize anthrax spores.

That work continued in 2012 with the Scientific Program on Reaerosolization and Exposure (SPORE), a set of coordinated studies conducted by EPA researchers in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, and others.

Collectively they are working to find ways to inform the design of emergency response and decontamination procedures to eliminate the hazards posed by anthrax spores after an initial release. A focus of the program is to explore how anthrax spores might renter the air, (“reaerosolization”) from surfaces where they settled after first being released. SPORE researchers conducted wind tunnel tests using anthrax surrogates and have found that reaerosolization of anthrax spores can occur even after the spores have settled, a key fact to consider for cleanup and disposal operations.

Though microscopic, anthrax was the weapon involved in the worst act of bioterrorism in the country's history.

Another effort is underway in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to understand how best to eliminate the threat of an anthrax release in water. Researchers conducted seven laboratory-based studies in water using anthrax surrogates along with other microbes identified as potential bioterrorism agents.

Researchers from the EPA/CDC partnership found that the effectiveness of chlorine and other disinfectants in killing the various biological contaminants depended on how many microbes are present, the pH and temperature of the water, the type and quantity of organic and inorganic particles in the water and the kind of material used in construction of the pipes. The studies are providing important information to EPA’s Office of Water and water utility managers who may have to deal with such biological contaminants.

The impact of EPA’s homeland security research will better inform and prepare the Agency and its stakeholders in responding to a terrorist threat or attack. These tools and techniques will result in quicker and more cost-effective response to and recovery from not just terrorist attacks, but other disasters, both natural and accidental.

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