decontamination

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.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA Homeland Security Research

This week, EPA is hosting the 7th annual international conference on decontamination research and development in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

To help spread the word about the conference, which brings top experts from around the world to advance collaboration and share information on cleaning up contamination—especially chemical, biological, and radiological agents—we will be posting “EPA Science Matters” newsletter feature stories.

EPA Homeland Security Research

By Gregory Sayles, Ph.D. 

The images that most people associate with homeland security are immediately dramatic: the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, biohazard-suit-clad decontamination teams, and the now iconic scenes that unfolded during the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

EPA homeland security researchers participate in a emergency collaborative response exercise.

EPA homeland security researchers participate in an emergency response exercise.

Since that time, EPA scientists and engineers, working collaboratively with Agency emergency response and field personnel, water utility professionals, and research partners from across the federal government and beyond, have been working vigilantly to focus our collective response on making the nation more secure, better prepared, and increasingly resilient.

Together, this great team is helping advance national security in ways that greatly enhance our capacity to detect, deter, and respond to terrorist incidents and other catastrophes.  And we are doing so in ways that not only advance homeland security, but build a scientific foundation that helps local communities become more resilient in the face of disruption, be it a deliberate act or unwelcome natural occurrence.

EPA plays a critical role in protecting the nation’s drinking water and the related water distribution and treatment infrastructure, and in advancing the capability to respond to, and clean up from, large-scale incidents involving chemical, biological, or radiological contamination agents.

Such responsibilities include developing the tools, methods, and techniques needed to: determine whether an attack has happened, characterize the impacts of environmental disasters, and control contamination. In addition, EPA researchers work to develop ways to assess environmental and health risks related to these incidents and clean up operations, and to effectively communicate those risks with decision makers, affected community residents, and other stakeholders.

Much of that work will be highlighted this week as we host our partners and collaborators from across the globe at the 7th annual international conference on decontamination research and development in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. To mark the conference, we will be highlighting just a small sampling of EPA’s homeland security research here on our blog, It All Starts with Science.

I invite you to check back over the next few days to learn more about how EPA researchers and their partners are exploring ways to decontaminate buildings from the bacteria that causes anthrax, how to better support large-scale clean up and waste disposal operations following a large area contamination incident, and much, much more to support homeland security.

Those projects and others are improving the nation’s response capability and helping replace pictures once dominated by tragedy and destruction into an ongoing story of resiliency and preparedness. Learn more about EPA homeland security research on our web site: http://www.epa.gov/nhsrc/index.html.

About the Author: Gregory Sayles, Ph.D., is the national program director for EPA homeland security research.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Liquids, Fumigants, or Foggers: Decontaminating Ricin

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Line of police tape with emergency responders in the far backgroundYou can’t watch the news lately and not hear the word “ricin.” Letters laced with ricin have been sent to the President, other federal officials, and New York City’s Mayor. And while the letters have not reached their intended recipients, ricin can contaminate mail sorters and buildings.

What is ricin? Where do you even find it? These were the questions I asked when I first heard a letter addressed to the President was contaminated with ricin. From an intensive google search, I learned ricin comes from castor beans. It is extremely toxic (a few particles the size of table salt grains can kill a human) and the effects depend on whether it is inhaled, ingested, or injected.  The ricin that contaminated the letters, in these cases, was in the form of a powder, but ricin can also be used by terrorists as mist, a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid, too.

While everyone is deemed safe at this point, an element I wondered about was who decontaminates the mail sorters and equipment the letters came into contact with, or the buildings where it was produced, and how? This is where EPA’s homeland security research comes into play.

While the “who” part depends on where the incident happens, the “how” is being researched day in and day out – looking for the best sampling methods and decontamination techniques.

One focus of homeland security research at EPA examines the efficacy of different decontamination methods, for example, using liquids, fumigants, or foggers. Scientists and engineers have identified ways to contain decontaminants and ways to dispose of the waste after decontamination. Hydrogen peroxide, pH-adjusted bleach, and chlorine-dioxide fumigation decontamination technologies are techniques researchers have tested and found to be successful decontaminants in different scenarios.

Researchers here have also developed a suite of decision support tools to assist in the safe disposal of waste and debris that might be generated during a contamination incident. The research helps decision-makers make the most appropriate choices for each situation and gives them the tools to make sure the environment is safe following an event.

While the health of those who may have been exposed is always first and foremost during a situation like this, responders also want to make sure they can decontaminate effected buildings, rooms, and equipment and mitigate any subsequent exposures. To learn more about EPA’s homeland security indoor and outdoor cleanup research,  please visit: http://www.epa.gov/nhsrc/aboutdecon.html

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.