homeland security

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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Progress in Communities: It All Starts with Science

This week is the 43rd Anniversary of the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and we are marking the occasion by revisiting how our collective efforts on behalf of the American people help local communities become cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable. As the Assistant Administrator for the Agency’s Office of Research and Development, I can’t help but see a strong undercurrent of science and engineering in every success story.

Over the past four plus decades, EPA scientists and engineers, along with their partners from across the federal government, states, tribes, academia, and private business, have supplied the data, built the computer models and tools, and provided the studies that have helped communities take action to advance public health and protect local environments.

In every area of environmental and human health action, EPA researchers have helped local communities make progress. While examples abound, here are just a few:
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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Advancing Anthrax Response Capabilities

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 are posting “EPA Science Matters” newsletter feature stories.

Advancing Anthrax Response Capabilities
EPA researchers developed an open-access protocol for anthrax detection and informing response activities

Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicted spores from the Sterne strain of Bacillus anthracis bacteria. Image courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicted spores from the Sterne strain of Bacillus anthracis bacteria. Image courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During and following an anthrax attack, emergency responders and clean-up officials will depend on many different laboratories to process large quantities of various kinds of samples to determine the nature and extent of contamination.  And then, after initial clean-up efforts have been completed, multiple “clearance” samples would need to be tested to evaluate whether anthrax-causing Bacillus anthracis spores were adequately reduced.

EPA researchers have combined many of the analytical procedures the Agency’s Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN)  would need to perform into a single, “open-access” protocol, the Protocol for Detection of B. anthracis in Environmental Samples during the Remediation Phase of an Anthrax Event (2012).   “Open-access” means that laboratories across the nation have access to a consistent set of directions and to the key components of the analysis.  The essential additives, developed by Agency researchers, are DNA probes for Bacillus anthracis that laboratories need to conduct rapid analysis.

The ERLN is a nationwide network of federal, state, local and commercial environmental laboratories (including sub-network for water samples, the Water Laboratory Alliance) charged with analyzing chemical, biological and radiological contamination following a terrorist attack.

“With the availability of this open access Protocol, EPA and its partners will be able to analyze a large number of environmental samples to detect Bacillus anthracis quickly and accurately during any incident.  The Ba Protocol would also enable laboratory analysts to compare lab results from one to another,” explains Sanjiv Shah, Ph.D. senior EPA microbiologist.

Reducing the time it takes for labs to provide officials with the data they will need to guide clean-up efforts and advise occupants on when they can start to re-visit or re-occupy formerly contaminated facilities is another expected impact of the Protocol.

“The availability of this new EPA Protocol will improve the nation’s ability to protect our health and environment and ease the hard work of recovery following an anthrax incident,” says EPA’s Acting Associate Administrator for Homeland Security, Juan Reyes.

 

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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Around the Water Cooler: Monitoring Drinking Water Systems

By Robert Janke

Water TowerA reliable source of clean, drinkable water is a must for any city or community to survive and prosper.  We take for granted the clean, drinkable water delivered from the tap whenever we want to quench that thirst. But few people recognize or understand the complexity of our nation’s water system and what goes into the operations required to deliver this essential human need in an unfailing way, day in and day out.

As one of our nation’s critical infrastructures, water distribution systems face security threats ranging from natural disasters, like hurricanes and extreme weather, to intentional acts of sabotage or terrorism.

Obviously, it’s important to be able to quickly detect, assess, and respond to any kind of water contamination event no matter the source. But in order to do that, it is essential to have a real-time understanding of what is going on in the water distribution system. This would help water utilities be better prepared to respond to natural disasters or intentional acts of sabotage and could also alert them to other problems like leaks in the distribution system or water quality problems.

So how do we get a real-time understanding of water system operations? We integrate a utility’s infrastructure model with their real-time or Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) data. We are testing and evaluating our real-time modeling software tools at the Northern Kentucky Water District (NKWD).

We are demonstrating how our real-time modeling software tools can be used to provide water utility operators with a better understanding of their water system and its operation. With our software tools, utility operators will have a “flight simulator” type of capability which will allow them to be better prepared to respond to emergencies and plan for the future.

To gain this understanding of the water system, we have developed an object-oriented software library called EPANET-RTX (EPANET “Real-Time eXtension”). RTX, for short, joins operational data from an already existing data system with an infrastructure model to improve operations and enhance security in a more sustainable and productive manner. RTX is built on the industry standard for distribution system modeling, EPANET, and leverages years of real-time modeling research and development efforts conducted by EPA.

RTX is open source software, and you can find it here. By making it open source, EPA hopes commercial companies will evaluate the technology and use it to develop commercial products.  We will continue to develop the RTX libraries which the water community will be able to use to (1) help water utilities field verify (validate) their infrastructure models and (2) develop RTX-based applications. These RTX-based applications will enable water utilities to better manage, operate, and secure their water systems.

To learn more about EPA’s research to keep our water systems safe and secure, please visit: epa.gov/nhsrc.

About the Author: Robert Janke is a research scientist intent on making sure our water stays clean and drinkable. He works in EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center located in Cincinnati, OH. Scientists in Cincinnati have been working on clean water issues for more than 100 years. Along with Rob Janke, the RTX project is being led by a multi-disciplinary team composed of Steve Allgeier, Michael Tryby, Lewis Rossman, Terra Haxton, and John Hall.

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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