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Post Amerithrax: Advancing the Science and Engineering of Decontamination

EPA scientists are developing and evaluating decontamination technologies to inactivate lethal bacteria such as anthrax.

Decontamination technology

In 2001, while the nation was still stunned by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a handful of anthrax-tainted letters were mailed to two U.S. Senators and several news media offices. While the letters never reached the Senators or the celebrity newscasters, 22 people who came into contact with the letters, primarily mail handlers were infected. Five of them died.

Dr. Shawn Ryan, Director of the Agency’s Decontamination and Consequence Management Division, stresses that, “…full-scale field data, in addition to laboratory tests, are needed to determine which anthrax decontamination technologies work best under various conditions and with various types of building and outdoor materials.” Field studies are then needed to ground-truth what we learned in the lab. Finally, we refine our understanding of how the whole system works.”

In a current field-level study, three decontamination technologies are being field tested: hydrogen peroxide fumigation, pH-adjusted bleach, and chlorine dioxide fumigation. The tests Dr. Ryan and his colleagues are conducting are part of the Bio-response Operational Testing and Evaluation (BOTE) partnership program, which is an interagency project involving six federal agencies, including EPA. In addition to BOTE, EPA also has been an active participant in two interagency programs the Interagency Biological Restoration Demonstration (IBRD) led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Defense and the Wide Area Recovery & Resiliency Program (WARRP) led by DHS. IBRD focused on how to address a hypothetical anthrax aerosol attack in the Seattle, Washington urban area and WARRP focuses on a similar scenario in Denver, Colorado. These collaborations also involve state and local agencies and numerous international observers.

Dr. Ryan notes that another important issue is learning how to decontaminate and properly dispose of waste materials contaminated with biological agents. EPA, along with DHS and other agencies, are implementing the National Response Framework, which guides federal response to domestic incidents. A suite of decision support tools has been developed to facilitate the safe disposal of waste and debris generated during a biological incident, as well as to quickly provide health and safety information critical to protect the public and recovery teams during cleanup.

The Amerithrax incidents sparked an increased awareness of the possibility of future bioterrorist attacks.  While treating people potentially exposed to anthrax will always be the first order of business after such an event, emergency responders and recovery officials are also working to ensure that they can decontaminate affected buildings and mitigate possible, subsequent exposures.  Since 2001, federal scientists, engineers and security experts have been researching methods for detecting, sampling and decontaminating anthrax from buildings and outdoor materials. EPA’s Homeland Security Research Program is leading that effort.

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