Anthrax as a Biological Weapon | What We Can Do

Before September 11th, most knowledgeable observers of world terrorism expected that the next major event would be an attack of a chemical or biological nature. Not many believed that terrorist organizations had the sophistication or the wherewithal to plan (over several years) an event involving the simultaneous hijacking of four major airliners to be used as missiles of mass destruction. It seemed far more likely that an individual, or a small cell, would conspire to contaminate a water supply or release a chemical agent in a subway, such as the sarin nerve gas unleashed on commuters in Tokyo, Japan. Such an act seemed so much more tactically feasible – and so much harder to prevent. After all, dozens of viable chemical and biological warfare agents already exist and how could the US possibly protect every water supply and every population center?

After September 11th, even though the US has focused security efforts largely on airline safety, many experts are back to their original premise that the next major assault will probably be biochemical in nature.

The recent postal deliveries of anthrax would seem to confirm this suspicion, and it has certainly renewed strategic thinking about biochemical defense in the built environment industry. As research has intensified in recent months, two truths are becoming evident: 1) Many effective ways exist to detect, contain and neutralize anthrax; and 2) The US can’t begin to afford such measures in every post office, government and commercial building in the nation.

Therefore, the US needs to carefully think out the strategic campaign against anthrax.

Why Anthrax?

Anthrax is a common organism associated with animal wastes and is routinely found in livestock pastures around the globe.

Bacillus anthracis has caused a malignant infectious disease in cattle, sheep and other mammals, including man, since the beginning of civilization. Ingested in sufficient concentrations, the bacillus causes malignant carbuncles or lesions on the skin, and is often fatal if not treated with the appropriate antibiotics in time.

The durability of the anthrax organism adds to its appeal as a biological weapon. The bacillus has a hard “shell” which protects it and allows it to remain dormant for many years while retaining the ability to reactivate after it is ingested. After military tests of anthrax were conducted on a Scottish island, the island was torched in hopes of killing off the test organisms. Ten years later, anthrax was still there and could still be activated.

In its crudest state, anthrax is not much feared by modern medicine; however, sophisticated refining and milling techniques can create a far more dangerous adversary.  Some processes can make the bacillus more resistant to Cipro®, one of the most effective antibiotics against anthrax. Other processes can mill the bacillus very fine and give it a negative charge, making it lighter than air and keeping it airborne for easy inhalation.

Another problem is the ease with which anthrax can be acquired under only the flimsiest pretext of “scientific need.” It is a commodity too readily available over the Internet and by mail order. Most experts agree that accountability for inventories of dangerous substances at the lab level, along with control of equipment which mill and refine such agents, should be immediately tightened.

The Good News and the Bad News

With the first experiences of anthrax, we are taking stock of our possible defensive strategies. The good news is that the US has solutions to guard buildings and inhabitants against anthrax and other agents terrorists are likely to employ, including smallpox, plague, and more. Experts in the built environment industry, who have experience in designing hospitals and other health care facilities, are familiar with many ways to control infectious agents within buildings. It is also true, however, that providing blanket protection for all commercial buildings, or even all government buildings, is logistically impossible for the foreseeable future, not to mention breaking the national bank.

As proof, consider that the cost of installing a system capable of irradiating all mail at a single average-sized post office would come in at about ten million dollars.

As if costs weren’t prohibitive enough, consider that most of these buildings simply do not have room for the required new equipment. In many cases, significant expansion would be required – assuming there is room for such expansion. Where expansion is not feasible, relocation to larger quarters would be necessary before extensive protective measures could be accommodated.

The Art of the Possible

If the US can’t offer blanket protection for all structures, what can be done in those locations where the risk of contaminated mail is great enough to warrant protective measures?

Certain criteria stand out for immediate consideration, whether the task is the design of a new building or renovation.

The foremost is the principle of creating a central screening facility, as opposed to building new systems at every location in a city or county. Such a facility would have the ability to screen a large volume of mail, repouch the mail in sealed pouches, and redeliver those pouches to the appropriate sites. In this way, monitoring and decontamination efforts could be limited to the central facility, with operations proceeding as normal at satellite sites.

While the majority of research into methods of decontamination is classified, so as not to provide terrorists with useful information, it can be revealed, however, that a band of the ultraviolet spectrum, designated as UV-C, shows great promise as an effective method of neutralizing anthrax and most other likely agents of biological warfare. Other forms of radiation, along with sterilization and pressurization techniques, can be effective decontaminants, but UV-C light is currently favored for several reasons.

UV-C is relatively safe to humans; does not damage magnetic media such as tapes, videos and credit cards; and is economical when compared to other methods. One drawback of UV-C is that it requires each piece of mail to be opened, exposing the contents to UV-C light for ten seconds in order to penetrate the “shell” surrounding the anthrax bacillus. This is time-consuming and can pose security problems when sensitive materials are involved, such as police files, court documents, negotiable financial instruments, etc.

Matching the Solution to the Risk

For the mail room of a public building, isolating the room from the rest of the building and monitoring for dangerous agents may be an appropriate solution. To contain explosions, the mail room can be designed with a blowout panel to prevent major structural damage by a bomb. The HVAC system can be configured to generate a positive pressure in the rest of the building, thus creating a slight vacuum in the mail room. This will push all building air to the mail room, preventing the airborne spread of agents from there to other areas.

The next level of protection could involve vacuum vents on all countertops and mail handling surfaces to capture trace elements in a hepafiltration system. This not only removes airborne contaminants from the handling area, it permits periodic swabbing of filters to test for biochemical agents. Work can proceed routinely until a hazardous substance has been detected, after which a HAZMAT team can be notified and other appropriate safety measures taken.

At the extreme end of precaution, entirely sealed mail handling systems are available. These may feature chambers of glass or Plexiglas®, which can only be accessed by workers through permanently mounted protective gloves. Such extreme measures would only be suitable for high-end clean room type situations, etc. Such a system would create a bottleneck at a high volume post office where tractor-trailers deliver thousands of sacks of mail each day.

More Help in the Pipeline

The U.S. military currently has a limited number of in-line, conveyor-fed type detection devices which can do instant trace element testing on the fly. This is a vast improvement in speed over systems which rely on periodic testing of swabs from filters. Instead, an alarm sounds at once upon contact with a monitored agent, triggering immediate safety measures.

Mass production of such systems is still in the distant future, but the technology is there, lending hope for the future.

Another avenue of exploration is the rapid response mobile decontamination system which can be delivered in a freight container or on a tractor-trailer to remedy an emergency situation. When available, this promises to be a far more efficient strategy than building permanent facilities where they may, or may not, ever be needed. Such systems may also provide a practical means of timely response to biochemical attacks on American foreign interests, such as embassies, military bases and corporate assets. Most experts think that such highly vulnerable targets as these will most likely be the focus of international terrorism’s next attack.

Editor’s Note:  After it was determined that a 94-year-old resident from a small town in Connecticut had contracted inhalation anthrax (and, tragically, succumbed to the illness), America is holding its collective breath in anticipation of the next possible incident. For Joe average (like you and I) who opens his mail every day, a low-tech preventative solution can be quite effective. According to Security Letter, a well respected newsletter in the security industry, the use of disposable gloves and “a simple dust mask” (costing less than four dollars) can go a long way in preventing infection. The main concern in limiting particle penetration is a careful fitting of the mask, particularly around the nose (open your mail outdoors, too). There is no need to go to specialty health care suppliers, as good quality masks are available at local hardware and other stores.

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