Air Quality Sensors Help Government Counter Bioterrorism; Could Detect Anthrax In The Air

By Shweta Iyer on May 11, 2014 11:39 AM EDT

gas mask
Post 9/11, the U.S. government has ramped up efforts to prevent another attack, including bioterrorism. (Photo: Sean Huolihan Photography, CC )

The threat of bioterrorism is a major concern of the 21st century. As part of its counterterrorism practice, the U.S. government uses air and surface sampling techniques in order to detect the presence of harmful pathogens in the air, potentially saving lives.

Dr. Alexander Garza, former chief medical officer at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and his team of researchers reviewed data from a series of experiments simulating a bioterrorism attack against the Pentagon. These experiments took place in 2005 and 2009, when the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA) tested its preparedness by conducting mock attacks, which involved releasing harmless bacteria - it did contain small portions of the anthrax stimulant - into the air. The bacteria was biologically similar to that of Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes the disease anthrax.   

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The researchers gauged the response of the general public to such an attack. The DHS also conducted experiments testing the efficacy of the BioWatch program, which screened air and surface samples for the presence of such pathogens. "We were able to detect the biological organisms released several kilometers from where the agent was originally released," Garza said in a press release. "We were not entirely surprised by the results. Since all of the modeling that had been done to date showed that air samplers should be able to detect these types of attack, what was missing was empirical evidence showing that these systems would work in real world conditions. We now have that evidence."

Usually, authorities discover exposure to a biological agent when a person becomes ill, such as during the anthrax attacks of 2001, Garza said. Once a potentially life-threatening bacteria is released into the air, a large number of people may become infected and die. "This experiment confirmed that a biological attack could be detected earlier using air sampling which means public health would have more time to respond," he said.

Traditionally, air sampling has been used to check for levels of particulate matter and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But after the World Trade Center attacks and the 2001 anthrax scare, the U.S. government created programs such as BioWatch to detect powerful pathogens in the air, which could be used against bioterrorism. Though the systems have been proven to be reliable, the detection cycle could take too long - as much as 36 hours. "The current process is labor-intensive and time-consuming. It takes a lot of manual labor and time to do the laboratory work," he said in the release.

It's important for that time frame to be reduced, as detecting these chemicals cannot always wait on patients showing symptoms of disease. An improved detection method would help authorities take all precautions necessary when putting an emergency medical plan in place. "If we can detect a dangerous pathogen in the environment at an earlier stage, we can quickly start planning the response procedure for it like distributing antibiotics," Garza said. "The sooner we pick up clues, the sooner we can act and save more lives."

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