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Standing By:  EPA Helps Nation’s Laboratories Prepare for Emergency Response Operations

EPA researchers enhance nation’s scientific capacity to analyze large number of samples.

Scientist with lab sample

Fast, accurate laboratory analysis can be critical. Determining the type and extent of contamination in the aftermath of a terrorist incident is essential for informing emergency response, recovery and remediation operations.

Ten years ago, such rapid analysis might not have been possible. In reviewing responses following the terrorist and anthrax attacks in 2001, homeland security experts identified several areas where the nation could be better prepared by improving laboratories’ ability to handle a large number of environmental samples following the intentional release of hazardous chemical, biological, and/or radiological substances.

A major step in that effort has been establishing the Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN). The ERLN is a nationwide network of analytical laboratories that can quickly support large-scale responses, providing increased capacity, consistent analytical capability, and reliability in producing quality environmental data. The network integrates public sector laboratories’ capabilities with accredited private sector laboratories to support responses for remediating contaminated indoor and outdoor areas and water infrastructure. The ERLN is coordinated by EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. The Water Laboratory Alliance --part of the ERLN--is led by EPA’s Office of Water.

In support of the ERLN, EPA’s homeland security researchers developed and compiled a compendium of methods to analyze environmental samples for chemical, biological, radiological, and biotoxin contamination.  This information is provided in Selected Analytical Methods (SAM) for Environmental Remediation and Recoveryto meet the needs of the response community and enhance laboratories’ ability to handle large numbers of samples.

“SAM provides the response and laboratory communities with methods for analyzing a particular contaminant in a number of matrices, that is the material being tested such as soil, air, water, building debris , etc.,” says Hiba Ernst, Director of the Threat and Consequence Assessment Division of EPA’s Homeland Security Research Program.  “There will be increased consistency in measurements across the labs and more critically, labs will be able to look at the available methods in one location and select the best analytical method for a given contaminant and matrix,” Ernst explains.

SAM lists the methods and approaches for characterizing and determining the nature and extent of contamination at a site. It also informs remediation and recovery decision-making.

SAM provides an on-line tool that laboratories can use to identify analytical methods for measuring chemical, biological and radiological analytes in environmental samples. The SAM web site provides a “methods query tool” that enables analysts to select a target contaminant, as well as the matrix of interest. Laboratory analysts can tailor methods to their own analytical and instrument capabilities. SAM also includes companion documents, sample analytical protocols, and sample collection procedures.

EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Defense, Geological Survey, state agencies, academia, and regional laboratories collaboratively evaluate and select the methods published in SAM. This partnership ensures that all available methods for each contaminant/matrix will be thoroughly evaluated and included. The result is a list of pre-selected, pre-evaluated, analytical methods that can be used by all laboratories when analyzing homeland security incident samples.

An earlier version of SAM, previously titled, “Standardized Analytical Methods for Environmental Restoration Following Homeland Security Events” was published with methods for analyzing 82 chemical analytes in four matrices, such as drinking water, lake water, soil, clay, and other sources, and 27 biological analytes in three matrices. “We’ve come a long way from when we first started,” says Ernst. The latest version, SAM 2010 (version 6.0), has 142 chemical analytes in five matrices, 25 radiological analytes in five matrices, and 18 biotoxin analytes in four matrices.

Rapid Detection Methods Help Speed Recovery from Radiological Contamination

Rapid Detection Methods Help Speed Recovery from Radiological Contamination

In 2010 EPA published a compendium of analytical methods for rapidly detecting selected radionuclides in drinking and surface water. The methods provide critical information to public and private laboratories that would be called upon to support EPA’s response and recovery actions following a radiological or nuclear incident such as a “dirty bomb explosion.”

EPA homeland security researchers collaborated with the Agency’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air these methods. They reduce the sample processing time from days or weeks to just eight to 38 hours.

Researchers developed analytical methods for radionuclides associated with americium, plutonium, isotropic uranium, radiostrontium and radium. These substances could be used in a radiological dispersion device and are a challenge to detect in the field using handheld instruments.
In addition to expedited analysis, EPA researchers developed the new methods to provide quantitative results that meet data quality control objectives for the intermediate and recovery phases of a nuclear or radiological incident.

Using these methods, partner laboratories can now provide results to field personnel more quickly, helping responders and decision makers develop site-specific clean-up strategies. In addition, after clean up has been completed, the new methods provide data that can help in determining when the site is safe again for public use.

The new methods will be added to EPA’s Selected Analytical Methods (SAM) for Environmental Remediation and Recovery that will be publishedin 2012.

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