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Interagency Collaboration Tests Response to Anthrax Contamination

EPA partners with five other agencies and departments to conduct and evaluate various anthrax-decontamination technologies in real-world scenarios.

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If millions of lethal and microscopic spores were released in a building, what would we do? How would we clean up such a dangerous mess?

A collaborative effort co-led by EPA’s Homeland Security Research Program and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) aims to uncover the best answer to that question. Through a two-phase research demonstration program called Bio-response Operational Testing and Evaluation (BOTE), the agencies intend to provide information and data to guide decision making regarding biological threats to homeland security such as anthrax.

Up to now, homeland security research has made great advances in systematic decontamination techniques, but mainly this research has taken place on a small scale, in a laboratory. “To increase preparedness, we need to scale-up,” explains Shawn Ryan, EPA’s BOTE program manager. “We need to take this from the lab and get it into an operational environment and see what we can learn about implementing it in a real event, or as close to a real event as possible. That is the real importance of BOTE.”

Phase I of BOTE evaluated three decontamination methods: fumigation with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, fumigation with chlorine dioxide, and a treatment process using a pH-adjusted bleach spraying technique.

Researchers released Bacillus atropheus spores (a nonpathanogenic surrogate for anthrax) in a two-floor test facility containing mockups of both commercial and residential rooms. Some rooms were designed to mimic business offices while others were laid out like small apartments, with appropriate materials such as carpet, fabric, and wood being used in each area. The variety of rooms and materials in the test facility allowed researchers to compare the efficacy of the three different decontamination treatments under different conditions.

“Each situation is different, in terms of environmental factors and the materials that are present inside the facility, so one approach may not work in every single case,” says Shannon Serre, EPA researcher involved in the BOTE program. “This research allows the decision makers to look at their specific situation and compare it with the results that were obtained from our program.”

In addition to comparing the success of each clean-up option, Phase I also examined the cost, damage to the facility, and potential re-contamination risk of each decontamination technique. T he effectiveness of treating wastewater from the contamination site was also examined. Researchers are in the process of evaluating data from Phase I. Phase II is scheduled to begin in September, 2011.

Phase II will mirror a potential real-life scenario where government officials will be informed of an anthrax-like contamination of a building. The resulting contamination in the scenario is called a covert release.

“A covert release means we don’t know what happened, we just know that there are spores there,” explains Serre. “It’s up to the FBI to figure out what happened…and eventually the building gets turned over to EPA to clean it up.” This exercise will test the response of health officials, law enforcement officials, and environmental response teams to a biological incident.

Both phases of the project exemplify interagency cooperation. In addition to EPA and DHS, the BOTE project promotes partnerships among the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Energy. This interagency effort ensures that research results are widely shared throughout the homeland security community.  It also leverages resources and expertise among the participating organizations.

Participants say BOTE benefits from this extensive cooperation—intra-agency as well as interagency. “On the EPA side, it is great to have the researchers working with the operational staff in the field,” reflects Ryan. “All sides have learned a lot about this very important homeland security subject.”

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