EPA Researchers Identify Technologies to Decontaminate Biological Threats

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

EPA and partners advance real world techniques to decontaminate anthrax bacteria.

EPA and partners advance techniques to decontaminate anthrax.

Since the terror attacks in 2001, most of us have adjusted to life with more security at airports, we’ve become accustomed to seeing police with guns protecting our train stations, and we probably didn’t even think twice about the “eyes in the sky” watching everyone during the Super Bowl a couple weeks ago.

Yet probably not many of us think about what might happen if there was an attack with a biological threat, like weaponized anthrax, and we probably don’t want to think about it either.

But there are people who think about it everyday. In fact, researchers in EPA’s Homeland Security Research Program don’t just think about what happens IF, but what happens AFTER. For more than a decade now, they have been researching the best methods to identify and decontaminate threats from chemical, radiological, and biological agents.

In fact, researchers tested several anthrax decontamination technologies during a multi-year project called Bio-Response Operational Testing and Evaluation, or BOTE. The project evaluated decontamination techniques in real-world situations so that the most promising techniques could be put into practice if necessary. BOTE tested not only the effectiveness, but it also examined the costs associated with each method and the expense of managing waste from cleanup – something local governments and building owners would need to understand in the aftermath of an event.

The three technologies tested included:

  • fumigation with vaporized hydrogen peroxide
  • fumigation with chlorine dioxide
  • a treatment process using a pH-adjusted bleach spraying technique

The results of the study found that the effectiveness of each of the three technologies differed based on certain conditions, such as the amount of humidity and temperature in the room. While no one method is a perfect solution, each method has advantages and disadvantages, so the information gained from this project will be important in guiding any future decontamination decisions and will ensure a more effective response to any biological incident. The knowledge was already put into good use when Capitol Police were looking for ways to decontaminate mailroom sorters after a 2013 ricin incident.

BOTE involved more than 300 participants and will provide state and local leaders, on-scene coordinators, waste managers and building owners with guidelines for effective decontamination in the event of a biological threat. Hopefully we’ll never have to really use it, but better to be prepared than not.

About the author:  Lahne Mattas-Curry is a frequent blogger covering water issues, but has recently expanded to share how researchers and engineers keep us safe from all the bad stuff, specifically in events of terrorism—chemical, biological, or radiological—or natural events like hurricanes, earthquakes and nuclear accidents.