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Proposed budget cuts threaten agency effort on building decontamination

June 7, 2004 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 82, ISSUE 23


In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government launched an intense research program directed at homeland security. This work is spread throughout the government, with departments and agencies large and small assigned to specific research topics in which they have expertise.


The Environmental Protection Agency's tasks in homeland security research are threefold: protection of the nation's drinking water supply, decontamination of buildings after a chemical or biological attack, and rapid risk assessment after such an attack. This work is carried out through EPA's National Homeland Security Research Center. Located at a large EPA laboratory in Cincinnati, the center was formed in 2002.

However, under the Bush Administration's proposed budget for fiscal 2005, funds for EPA's homeland security-related building decontamination research would be cut off. This proposal has some members of Congress worried. A number of Republicans and Democrats believe this aspect of the agency's research should continue.

Top EPA officials, as a result, are in a tough spot. To remain loyal to the President, they cannot speak against the White House decision to eliminate this part of EPA's research funding. They are in the difficult position of trying to explain why the cut is appropriate. But in May, EPA joined with the Army to showcase homeland security research for members of Congress.

At the May 14 congressional briefing, E. Timothy Oppelt, director of EPA's National Homeland Security Research Center, said much of EPA's work on homeland security is done in collaboration with other federal agencies--many within the military. EPA's Army partners include the Edgewood (Md.) Chemical Biological Center, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Army Research Laboratory. Another is the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah's Great Salt Lake Desert, which tests the reliability and survivability of military equipment in a chemical or biological attack. Oppelt said EPA is also working with three Energy Department national laboratories--Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Argonne--as well as with the National Institute for Standards & Technology and the Department of Homeland Security.

The briefing was held at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, the lead military laboratory for nonmedical chemical and biological technology. Located northeast of Baltimore, the center was established in 1917 to counter the use of chemical weapons during World War I. Its mission is to protect "war fighters," says Joseph H. (Jim) Zarzycki, technical director of the center. But the center has formed a partnership with EPA for research on the security of drinking water supplies and decontamination of buildings.

Gilman (far left) describes the joint EPA-Army work on drinking water system safety with (from left) Rep. C. A. Ruppersberger (D-Md.); Peter F. Verga, Defense Department's special assistant for homeland security; and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. At right, Pappas stands amid the test loop used for detecting chemical and biological agents in water systems.
Gilman (far left) describes the joint EPA-Army work on drinking water system safety with (from left) Rep. C. A. Ruppersberger (D-Md.); Peter F. Verga, Defense Department's special assistant for homeland security; and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. At right, Pappas stands amid the test loop used for detecting chemical and biological agents in water systems.

DRINKING WATER system research has been done for years at EPA's Cincinnati laboratory, which developed a specially designed network of pipes that allows scientists to simulate and test a water utility's distribution system. Homeland security research at the Ohio facility involved the introduction of sewage, pesticides, and a chemical that is a surrogate for cyanide into a test drinking water system, said Jonathan G. Herrmann, water security team leader at EPA's National Homeland Security Research Center.

But the Cincinnati lab cannot run tests with actual chemical or biological agents because such studies require a specially designed, secure facility. So EPA teamed up with the Edgewood center, which has longstanding expertise in detecting and decontaminating chemical and biological agents, said Alex G. Pappas, facilities manager for the toxics chambers at the Edgewood facility. According to J. Paul Gilman, EPA assistant administrator for research and development, the Edgewood facility allows researchers to "use live agents and test them in a safe setting."

A duplicate of the EPA Cincinnati laboratory's drinking water system--called a water test loop--was built at the Edgewood center at a cost of about $400,000, Pappas said. The piping in the center's test loop is made of polyvinyl chloride. Pappas said segments of metal water distribution pipes taken from water utilities will be inserted into the test loop. This will allow researchers to study the effects of chemical and biological agents on the type of pipes actually in use, he said.

EPA also wants to determine the effects of chemical and biological agents on appliances attached to water lines, Oppelt said. Then, in case of an attack, EPA could advise home and building owners whether they need to replace dishwashers, water heaters, icemakers, or other water-using appliances, he said.

In addition, the EPA-Army effort at the Edgewood center is determining how water-system monitors already in use could be helpful in detecting chemical and biological agents, Oppelt said.

Commercial monitors now used by water utilities provide data on three qualities of water, Pappas explained: pH, conductivity, and redox potential, which is also referred to as corrosivity. Researchers working in Edgewood hope they can tie specific numerical readings for these three parameters to certain types of chemicals, such as organophosphate pesticides, Pappas said. That way, utilities that get an out-of-the-ordinary reading for these parameters will not only know that they've had a substance introduced into their distribution system--they will also have an idea what that contaminant is, he explained.

The data will do more than just warn of exotic chemical contamination. Research on pH, conductivity, and corrosivity readings may also assist utilities concerned that lead from distribution pipes is leaching into drinking water that was essentially lead-free when it left the filtration plant, Pappas said. This work could help water companies pinpoint which parts of their distribution system have lead problems, he said.

Another aspect of this drinking water system research is focused on the types and numbers of monitors that utilities need for detecting chemical and biological agents. Oppelt said EPA is working with Sandia National Laboratories to calculate the most cost-effective mix of expensive, highly sensitive monitors and cheaper, less sensitive monitors to ensure effective security of drinking water systems.

Jeffrey L. Hinte, director of the Advanced Planning & Initiatives Business Development Division at the Edgewood center, said the Defense Department is developing advanced sensors that would directly determine the identity of a chemical or biological agent rather than reckoning it from pH, corrosivity, and conductivity readings. However, deployment of those advanced sensors for water monitoring is at least three years away, Hinte said.

Meanwhile, Oppelt said, EPA is working on a rapid testing technique that would allow a utility to determine whether an unknown contaminant detected in a water system is ricin, a potentially lethal plant protein. In addition, researchers are studying ways to decontaminate and disinfect water systems after a chemical or biological attack, Hinte said.

Other homeland security research at the Edgewood center is focused on how to clean up structures after a chemical or biological attack.

Faster, more effective, and less expensive methods of cleaning up buildings are needed, said Nancy Adams, lead for EPA's Safe Buildings Program--a homeland security research effort for decontaminating structures. She noted that the cleanup of anthrax spores in the Hart Senate Office Building, which was contaminated in late 2001, used hazardous chlorine dioxide, cost tens of millions of dollars, and took months to complete.

The Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is working with Steris Corp., based in Mentor, Ohio, on a single decontamination technology that can neutralize both chemical and biological agents in buildings, aircraft, and other structures. In the late 1980s, Steris developed a vaporized hydrogen peroxide technology for decontamination. Systems using this technology are used today in aseptic production of pharmaceuticals, according to Steris.

In collaboration with the Edgewood center, a Steris subsidiary, Strategic Technology Enterprises Inc., modified the vaporized H2O2 system by adding ammonia. In March, tests at Edgewood showed this new technology was effective against chemical agents as well as biological ones.

Mark D. Brickhouse, team leader for decontamination sciences at the Edgewood center, said the modified vaporized H2O2 technology destroys two types of neurotoxins--chemical agents G and B--as well as the blistering agent mustard. Decontaminating a building polluted with biological agents using the modified technology takes three to 10 hours, he said. Decontaminating chemical agents in a structure takes longer, at least 24 hours, he added.

Work is continuing at the Edgewood facility to see whether this new technology is compatible with the variety of modern materials, including the plastics and electronics found in planes as well as carpets and ceiling tiles.

But how long EPA will be able to participate in this kind of research is up in the air. Members of Congress are concerned that the Bush Administration plans to eliminate EPA's funding for building contamination research in the coming fiscal year.

"THE ADMINISTRATION has yet to explain the reason for this cut," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee.

The House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology & Standards held a hearing on EPA homeland security research on May 19. There, panel Chairman Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) repeatedly pressed Gilman on why the Administration included no money for EPA to continue its building-decontamination-related homeland security research in its proposed budget for fiscal 2005. "This cut will prevent EPA from conducting some important research," Ehlers said.

Gilman replied that some of the $8.3 million fiscal 2004 money would be available to carry out projects in 2005.

Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said, "I don't see how three years is sufficient" for EPA to complete its homeland security research agenda. Gilman responded that the three-year program provides "a sense of urgency" to complete a short-term, high-intensity research effort.

Ehlers also asked DHS Assistant Secretary for Science & Technology Penrose C. Albright if the department could provide EPA with research money in 2005. Albright responded, "I'm not exactly sure how much slack there is."

"I want to help EPA get the money it needs to carry out this important work," Ehlers said. He pledged to work with congressional appropriators to fund EPA's homeland security research in 2005 "to ensure this work is not stopped in its tracks."



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