Making ways to spot, remove toxic agents

Security: The Army's Edgewood center develops systems to detect tainted water and cleanse contaminated buildings.

May 15, 2004|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Anxious to show itself on the front lines of homeland security, and to buttress political support, a key Aberdeen Proving Ground unit showcased several of the inventions it has been developing with partners - including an "early warning system" that could one day stymie terrorist attempts to lace U.S. drinking water with biological or chemical agents.

At yesterday's "Congressional Homeland Security Technology Showcase," APG's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center also showed off a device that, if successful, could slash to days from weeks or months the time it takes to "cleanse" a building contaminated by such agents as anthrax spores.

"All [terrorists] have to do is be lucky just one time," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "We have to take luck out of the equation. That's what you have been doing here."

APG has been a bastion of Army research since its inception during World War I, and remains a leader in such areas as ballistics and performance-testing of armored vehicles, especially those of rival nations captured during battle. But with the Cold War's thaw, like a corporation that realizes it's over-reliant on a single market, APG more than a decade ago began to diversify into other areas.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shifted the perceived threat to U.S. security from tanks to terrorism. The Edgewood center, which in the past was called Edgewood Arsenal, has taken this task to heart, said ECBC technical director Jim Zarzycki, linking up with partners in the public and private sectors and seeking out technology-transfer opportunities.

Many of these projects have ultimately focused on homeland security - which was clearly the theme of yesterday's two showcased projects: The "water test loop" the ECBC developed in concert with the Environmental Protection Agency, and a building-decontamination project and technology-transfer program that was a collaboration between APG and Steris Corp. of Mentor, Ohio.

With the water test loop, EPA and Army researchers hope to create a system that will not only warn water system operators that biological or chemical toxins have been introduced by terrorists, but also warn of pollutants from an industrial accident or sewage spill. Since the attacks on New York and Washington, government officials have long worried about assaults on some of the nation's water systems.

It's no small worry, since there are an estimated 50,000 water systems, with huge variations in their designs, operating procedures and security. With the water test loop program, the EPA and ECBC are hoping to uncover some common features that can be used to improve the design, operating procedure and safety of the systems that deliver the water U.S. citizens use for drinking, cooking and bathing.

The $375,000 water test loop is essentially a research-only device now, useful for running "what if" simulations, training operators, and trying out new types of sensors or different water-flow configurations.

Officials said that with an early warning, the water system could be shut down and the toxins purged before either people or the environment suffers significant harm.

Researchers have already had some success with the test loop: Yesterday, when a foreign - but nontoxic - substance was introduced into the water test loop system and passed an upstream sensor, all three of the tracking lines on the nearby computer screen nose-dived, a development that would prompt action from a trained technician, facility manager Alex G. Pappas said.

While ECBC worked with another government entity on the water test loop, it struck a technology-sharing arrangement with a private company to create the building-decontamination equipment.

Using a "Cooperative Research and Development Agreement," ECBC joined forces with Steris to develop a technology that can shorten the time it takes to rid a building of chemical or biological contaminiation, and do so more safely by reducing the amount of time workers would have to spend inside a facility.

By creating equipment that can generate and emit a highly modified mixture of vaporized hydrogen peroxide, or "Modified VHP technology," the partners believed they could neutralize chemical and biological agents inside buildings. That belief was rewarded just two months ago when they trumpeted their success in tests that rendered both types of agents inactive.

The equipment is portable, although the main units are large enough to require transport by truck.

Those involved with the project said that a standard-size office building could be decontaminated in five days to seven days, as opposed to the weeks or months it might take to do the same job manually. Research continues, however.

"This is important work that we are doing," Gerard Reis, a senior vice president for Steris, told the gathering of congressional leaders. "I still believe that, at the end of the day, we will win this war. That's based on having the best science, and having the best people."

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