Military marks opening of $46 million APG lab

Maryland

October 08, 2005|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

Military marks opening of $46 million APG lab In a room that will soon contain some of the deadliest chemicals on earth, Mark Brickhouse opened a glass cabinet and smiled as he waited for an alarm to go off.

"It's a safety feature," Brickhouse, a military chemist, said of the beep that sounded seconds later throughout the building.

Brickhouse was standing inside what he and military researchers described yesterday as one of the most advanced chemistry laboratories in the nation.

The $46 million facility at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, will be part of the military's defense against chemical attacks, a program that has taken on increased importance in the burgeoning war on terror.

The new lab also highlights the proving ground's expanded role as the military evolves. The post will gain 2,200 government jobs as part of a nationwide consolidation of bases.

"ECBC is probably the principal research-and-development organization for chemical and bio defense," said Jeffrey L. Hinte, a director of advanced planning and initiatives for the center. "They work day-in and day-out with the most toxic chemicals known to man. The lab is designed to facilitate working with these hazardous materials and provide a very high level of protection for our workers and our community."

Yesterday, the military celebrated the completion of the facility, which took three years to build and whose funding came out of the federal budget. As a heavy rain fell, more than 300 people gathered under a white tent as dignitaries such U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes emphasized the importance of military research and development.

The nation no longer has an offensive chemical warfare program, but it maintains a defensive program.

Hinte said the new lab's researchers will work toward the defensive program's three missions: detection, protection and decontamination.

And they will study three kinds of agents: nerve agents, such as sarin, used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack that killed 12 and sickened thousands; blister agents, such as mustard agent, used in World War I; and blood agents, such as cyanide.

Partly because of the Internet, more people these days have access to a wider variety of dangerous chemicals, Hinte said.

"People can make these things without the level of sophistication of an advanced weapons system like a nuclear bomb," Hinte said. "It's sometimes been nicknamed the poor man's weapon because chemicals are available everywhere.

"Our job," he added, "is to prevent technological surprises."

While other military facilities develop medicines to treat victims of chemical attacks, the new Edgewood lab will mainly focus on "hardware," such as gas masks and hand-held chemical detectors.

"We focus on the nonmedical aspects of the Chemical Biological Defense Program," Hinte said.

The 75,000-square-foot gray building is designed to allow scientists to work directly with deadly substances such as ricin and anthrax without posing a threat to themselves or the environment, Hinte said.

The defining feature in the labs are the powerful hoods, which look like glass cabinets and are located along the walls of the laboratories. They evacuate chemical fumes, which are then decontaminated in the building's filtration system.

The hoods are more sophisticated and much bigger than the ones in the old facility, which opened in 1963.

They're part of a ventilation system designed to ensure that clean air constantly flows through the building.

Despite the high technology, caution will continue to be the watchword for those who work in the lab, Brickhouse said.

"You don't see cowboys around here," said Brickhouse, wearing glasses and a white lab coat. "I've never seen people move more deliberately and more slowly. They're very careful."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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