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Just in Case

Hospitals, Businesses Ponder Value of Biohazard Detectors

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page E01

Until two years ago, Washington Hospital Center doctors thought the threat posed by a dirty bomb was about as real as a Tom Clancy novel: thrilling fiction, but certainly no reason to change everyday hospital procedure.

"But then the switch flips," said Christopher Wuerker, chairman of emergency management at the District hospital, describing how he and other administrators decided they should spend about $100,000 on radiological detection devices for key entrances. "You hear experts start talking about how such an attack could happen. You read about how widely available nuclear isotopes are. You go from not needing this equipment to needing it immediately."

20/20 GeneSystems' Jonathan Cohen says more than 1,000 first responders have been trained to use the BioCheck Kit. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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In coming to terms with exotic threats like dirty bombs and toxins, local hospitals, police and fire departments, and other emergency agencies face a difficult choice: Invest tens of thousands of dollars in increasingly complex detection equipment, or risk being less than prepared in the event of a terrorist strike.

The marketplace is flooded with new devices, ranging from cheap tests resembling high school chemistry sets -- helpful in weeding out "white powder hoaxes" -- to expensive portable electronic machines that can quickly identify toxic agents such as ricin.

Total revenue for the biodefense industry cannot be pinned down because many companies are privately held and don't have to publicly report their sales. But some public-health experts think that hospitals and government agencies are too quick to buy equipment they may never use.

"Since 9/11, we've obviously been told, for good reason, that we don't know what threats might be lurking out there, and obviously we need to be prepared," said Stephen S. Morse, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at Columbia University. "But at the same time, if you buy such a machine, it should have a broader function. It shouldn't be used for some special purpose, in which you may never even use it. It promotes a false sense of security. The money could be better spent on something for daily use."

At Washington Hospital Center, the decision was made easier because federal money was available to pay for $12.5 million in emergency equipment it bought recently. Federal agencies have provided billions of dollars in local grants since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to boost preparedness.

Hospital and emergency-preparedness officials said that may not be the best use of their money in terms of saving lives, but the fear of not being ready for an attack is acute.

"It's difficult to deal with these fanatical threats when doctors and nurses are just trying to get through the day," Wuerker said. "But we have to address all the needs. We have to address all the threats."

In some cases, hospitals have spent their own money.

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