If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Homeland Security Research At EPA

Investigations aim to protect water systems, detect contamination, facilitate cleanup, and assess risk

by Cheryl Hogue
August 28, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 35

EPA's homeland security research includes development of methods for deactivating biological agents, such as anthrax, on porous items such as the couch pictured.
EPA's homeland security research includes development of methods for deactivating biological agents, such as anthrax, on porous items such as the couch pictured.

A multitude of federal agencies conduct research related to homeland security, to the tune of billions of dollars per year. These agencies include the Department of Homeland Security as well as the Departments of Defense, Health & Human Services, Justice, Energy, Agriculture, and Transportation. Investigations run the gamut from development of sensors for detecting illicit nuclear materials in commerce to cybersecurity.

A smaller but key player in federal homeland security research is the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA scientists work to protect the water systems that provide most Americans with safe drinking water. Because EPA is the federal agency that deals with chemical and microbial contamination, its homeland security investigations also focus on cleaning up after a terrorist attack. The agency has a raft of other research efforts, including expansion of analytical laboratory capabilities and working with first responders, including fire fighters.

EPA's homeland security research began as a temporary, three-year assignment in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But through the 2002 Bioterrorism Act and three presidential directives on homeland security, the EPA National Homeland Security Research Center became a permanent federal fixture as of December 2004. The center is part of the agency's Office of Research & Development.

All of the center's activities are focused on science that helps the U.S. prevent and recover from terrorist attacks, says Jonathan G. Herrmann, the center's acting deputy director.

EPA's homeland security research covers chemical and biological agents as well as some radiological contamination. It also deals with the aftermath of "things that go boom"—such as planes crashing into buildings—that don't involve chemical or biological agents or radioactivity, says Peter R. Jutro, the center's deputy director for science and policy.

Goals of this work include determining whether an attack has happened, containing contamination and mitigating its impact, measuring risk, getting usable information to first responders, and disposing of tainted materials.

The National Homeland Security Research Center itself does not exist in a single place. Its base is at EPA's facilities in Cincinnati, headquarters of the agency's National Risk Management Research Laboratory. In the Ohio city, EPA's homeland security research activities focus on protecting drinking water supplies and on collecting, treating, and disposing of wastewater. Also based in Cincinnati are EPA investigations assessing threats and consequences of terrorist attacks. This work includes risk assessments of chemical and biological agents.

Meanwhile, research on managing and cleaning up buildings and outdoor areas contaminated with chemical, biological, or radiological agents takes place at EPA's research facilities in Research Triangle Park, N.C., as well as in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C.


In addition, research based in Las Vegas is aimed at evaluating commercially available equipment designed for contamination detection, monitoring, treatment, or decontamination. This undertaking, an outgrowth of the agency's Environmental Technology Verification Program, covers computer models of drinking water systems and other technologies used in homeland security.

These activities provide a big universe of potential research for a center that has funding of $29 million in fiscal 2006. But EPA has worked to strategically target its efforts. Its research covers chemical, radiological, and biological agents that are both available to terrorists and lethal, Jutro explains. In addition to these threats, the agency's research includes certain agents recommended by the intelligence and law enforcement communities as most likely to be used by terrorists.

In addition to choosing a set of agents, EPA considered thousands of potential types, or scenarios, of terrorist attacks for research efforts, Jutro says. Selected were scenarios, such as intentional poisoning of drinking water, that are considered the most likely to happen and that could harm many people. Other types of attack factored into research plans are those that would involve fewer deaths but could paralyze crucial parts of the U.S. economy.

The effort EPA put into narrowing the focus of its homeland security research "gives us confidence that the research we're doing is needed," says Andrew P. Avel, acting director of the center.

A major part of EPA's homeland security research involves water systems. Agency scientists are characterizing possible threats to drinking water and sewage systems and developing methods to detect and monitor contaminants. This work involves experiments on big loops of pipes that are mock water mains and distribution systems, explains Kim R. Fox, acting director for the center's water infrastructure protection division.

Like all homeland security research at EPA facilities, water infrastructure experiments involve simulants and surrogates, not actual chemical and biological agents. Simulants are compounds that have structural or chemical properties similar to those of warfare agents such as VX, GB, and Lewisite but that are much less hazardous or relatively harmless, Jutro explains.

Surrogates are benign organisms with genetic, structural, or other properties, such as size, that are similar to infective agents such as anthrax, smallpox, or foot-and-mouth disease, he says. Researchers might use one or more simulants or surrogates for an agent, depending on the properties they are studying, he adds.

Fox says agency scientists in the Water Infrastructure Protection Division test actual chemical and live agents at the Defense Department's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland and at Battelle Science & Technology International in Columbus, Ohio (C&EN, June 7, 2004, page 27).

One aspect of water infrastructure research involves taking monitoring information that utilities collect on the quality of drinking water and applying it to detect the presence of chemical or biological agents, Fox says.

Utilities continuously monitor drinking water for qualities such as free chlorine, turbidity, temperature, pressure, and conductivity, and ions like chloride, nitrate, or ammonium. Water suppliers also conduct more detailed analysis for possible chemical, microbial, and radiological pollution through "grab samples" tapped from pipes. These data, along with reports from customers complaining about an odor or a bad taste in their water and any cluster of complaints about sickness gleaned from 911 calls, can be used for detection of contamination, Fox says.

Cleaning up a water system after an attack with a chemical or biological agent is also part of the EPA research. Depending on the agent, pipes may be decontaminated by flushing with water or by adding a heavy dose of chlorine, a surfactant, or a strong oxidizer like potassium permanganate, Fox says. Other research is investigating how to inactivate organisms and remove chemical or biological contamination from water, pipes, and home appliances like washing machines and ice makers.

Water system research is not confined to hands-on experiments. Another homeland security investigation at EPA uses computer power to analyze schematic diagrams of pipe networks through various U.S. cities. These studies are aimed at helping utilities stop movement of contamination through a water system, for instance, by disabling certain pumps or shutting certain valves, Fox says.

Other EPA studies focus on rapid and cost-effective remediation and restoration of contaminated buildings and outdoor areas. This work includes development of portable detection systems for chemical agents in air or on surfaces and procedures to sample indoor surfaces for the presence of pathogenic bacteria. Still other research evaluates the impact of a building's ventilation design on the dispersal of contaminants and investigates how to decontaminate porous indoor materials such as upholstery and wallboard.

Results of some of these investigations have already helped out in real-life situations, says Nancy H. Adams, director of the center's Decontamination & Consequence Management Division, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C. For example, she says, EPA researcher Paul M. Lemieux experimented with a couch, ceiling tiles, and other porous materials dosed with a surrogate for anthrax. He found that a single cycle in a large commercial autoclave did not kill all the microbial spores. A second cycle was needed to ensure adequate steam penetration to kill the microbes.

After a drum maker in New York City contracted inhalation anthrax earlier this year from infected animal skins (C&EN, May 15, page 42), EPA workers who cleaned his apartment used some of the decontamination methods developed through Lemieux's research, Adams says.

In addition, EPA researchers working with the Defense Department have developed a prototype anthrax spore detector based on laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, Adams says. The equipment fits into a backpack and over gear worn by emergency responders, which might include protective clothing, a self-contained breathing apparatus, and three pairs of gloves, Adams says. She did not elaborate on how the equipment works.

With the detector, a worker can use a probe to "zap" a sample of a white power "and find out in about a second" whether the stuff is anthrax, she explains. First responders tell EPA that development of the device is particularly important to them because they regularly handle "bogus white powder incidents," Adams adds.

At EPA's Cincinnati laboratory, Environmental Engineer Jeffrey Szabo runs experiments on drinking water contamination at the agency's test loops, which mimic a water distribution system.
At EPA's Cincinnati laboratory, Environmental Engineer Jeffrey Szabo runs experiments on drinking water contamination at the agency's test loops, which mimic a water distribution system.

The new device will be an improvement over the current system, which involves taking samples of suspect powders to a lab, where a polymerase chain reaction test can confirm in 12 to 20 hours whether the material is anthrax.

As well as detecting and cleaning up, another aspect of EPA's homeland security research is assessing the risks of chemical and biological agents. The agency's goal is to produce scientifically defensible assessments quickly, says Cynthia Sonich-Mullin, director of the Threat & Consequence Assessment Division.

EPA has decades of experience conducting risk assessments based on long-term exposure to low levels of a substance. But risk assessments for homeland security purposes are somewhat different, Sonich-Mullin says, because people could be exposed to high concentrations of a chemical or biological agent for a short period of time during and after a nefarious attack. She points out that "less than optimal" data are available for some compounds, and Jutro adds that the health effects of some agents are not well-characterized. Nonetheless, EPA is developing methods to incorporate available information into risk assessments.

Risk assessments for homeland security purposes are designed to protect cleanup professionals, residents, or workers who return to the area of an attack to retrieve belongings. EPA is developing tools to assess risks from exposures lasting between two months and two years, about how long it might take to clean up the site of a chemical or biological attack, Sonich-Mullin explains.

EPA's risk assessment expertise has historically been focused on chemicals, but agency researchers are developing a methodology to estimate risk posed by toxic microbes. They are pulling together existing data on these microbes and are identifying areas for future research related to microbial risk assessment, Sonich-Mullin says.

Meanwhile, agency researchers are developing a computer-based tool to help first responders assess the risks when confronted with agents of concern. Using a series of questions, the tool is designed to enhance responders' ability to make risk-based decisions at either a contaminated site or an emergency operations center.

EPA's homeland security investigators toil not only in laboratories or on computers; they also work directly with those who would respond first to terrorist attacks. Each weekday, one of five Cincinnati firefighters reports to work as an EPA staffer at the Threat & Consequence Assessment Division. "They help 'ground-truth' what we do," Sonich-Mullin says.

Jutro says the regular interaction between scientists and first responders "creates an unprecedented relationship" that is highly productive. Plus, Sonich-Mullin says, EPA researchers have established a relationship with the people they would be working with during homeland security emergencies.

Fox explains how utilities monitor for various qualities of drinking water.
Fox explains how utilities monitor for various qualities of drinking water.

Another part of the research center, the Response Capability Enhancement program, supports EPA's Office of Solid Waste & Emergency Response in establishing a network of in-house laboratories that would provide analytical support in the wake of a terrorist attack, says Rob Rothman, an EPA physical scientist. The program is recruiting analytical laboratories within EPA's 10 regional offices to develop and validate methods to screen environmental samples such as soil and water for chemical, biological, or radiological agents.

Several of these analytical labs now are working on techniques to detect degradation products from chemical agents using materials supplied by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Rothman says the EPA analytical labs plan to work with actual chemical agents in the future.

The Response Capability Enhancement program also teaches firefighters to collect samples from an attack site for laboratory analysis. It provides information to first responders on cleanup techniques and on expected symptoms from exposure to various agents, according to Rothman. In turn, firefighters review the data that EPA has assembled and give feedback to the agency. This approach has prompted EPA to revise the presentation of some its information, Rothman adds.


The Response Capability Enhancement program also develops on-the-ground techniques that first responders can use to make the first stab at identifying an unknown material, such as a white powder. These screening efforts include a handheld device to check for radioactivity, calorimetric and pH measurements to determine if the material is a chemical hazard, and a flame test to determine if it is explosive, Rothman says. Once these properties are determined, a sample of the material can be sent to the appropriate lab for formal analysis. EPA is considering the development of screening techniques for biological activity too, he adds.

Although investigations at EPA's National Homeland Security Research Center are targeted at specific contaminants that terrorists could employ, its scientists keep in mind the potential to apply their research findings to traditional pollution problems, Herrmann says.

From better short-term risk assessments to new cleanup techniques, the center's research has implications for EPA's broad mission to protect human health and the environment, he says. For instance, computer-based homeland security studies of water systems to stop the spread of contamination can help utilities improve the quality of the drinking water they provide, Herrmann says.

The center's research, Herrmann contends, will pay off in "tremendous benefits" to both homeland security and traditional environmental protection.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.