A Feb. 7 article reporting that public health laboratories are unprepared to cope with a chemical weapons attack included erroneous numbers supplied by the Association of Public Health Laboratories. The organization says its survey of the 50 state labs found that on a scale of 1 to 10, 34 state labs rated their chemical response capability at or below a 4, while 14 others gave themselves scores of 5 or 6. (Published 6/25/03)
The nation's public health laboratories are woefully unprepared to handle chemical weapons agents such as sarin or mustard gas that could be used in a terrorist attack, according to a 50-state survey released yesterday.
On a scale of 1 to 10, 37 state labs rated their chemical response capability at or below a 4, while nine others gave themselves scores of 5 or 6, according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which conducted the survey last month. Only eight labs have chemical response plans. There are no national protocols for testing or shipping suspicious chemicals.
"We have almost nothing in place if an event occurred tomorrow," said Scott Becker, executive director of the association.
Since the anthrax attacks of 2001, public health labs have raced to upgrade their bioterrorism units, purchasing equipment, hiring specialists and tightening security. But few have the expertise or technology needed to identify some of the 150 most hazardous chemical agents.
"The big fear in the lab community is the unknown sample somebody cooked up that may contain multiple agents," said Jim Pearson, director of Virginia's division of consolidated laboratory services. "You could have a powder that somebody says is anthrax, and here it's some chemical agent that blisters. It affects your staff and puts you out of business."
Lab directors and terrorism experts across the country say they dread scenarios such as the release of a mysterious gas in a subway or basketball arena. Soon people would begin coughing, fainting or reporting other symptoms.
"In our state, within the first 30 minutes, the mayor of Salt Lake City or the governor of Utah would be asking: What is it?" said Charles Brokopp, the Utah state lab director.
But even after elaborate preparations for last year's Olympics, Brokopp said he still would have to send chemical samples to a federal lab and wait 18 to 24 hours for results. "Timing is very important, because that information can be vital to the physicians and emergency departments involved in treating these individuals," he said.
However, Randall Larsen, a retired Air Force colonel and director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, said release of the deadliest chemical agents would not require lab confirmation because people would die rapidly.
He cautioned against spending precious homeland security dollars on preparing state labs for situations they may never encounter.
The government has focused on biological threats in large measure because deadly germs such as anthrax are obtainable by terrorists and small quantities are easily concealed.
Armed with millions in federal aid, state labs have rapidly improved their capability to detect biological agents, said Steve Hinrichs, director of the Nebraska Public Health Lab. But asking a microbiologist to conduct chemical analysis is akin to hiring a car mechanic to fix an airplane, he said.
"One of our concerns is a terrorist would be smart enough to do a dual attack," he said. "They'd use a chemical agent on top of a biological agent."
Five states, including Virginia, have received money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test clinical samples such as blood and urine for dangerous chemicals in the event of an attack. This year, CDC hopes to add 10 more labs to that effort, said Dayton Miller, associate director of the lab division at CDC's National Center for Environmental Health.
"We're all very much aware of the need to expand chemical lab capacity," he said. "We're working very hard to do our part to make that happen." But the CDC program focuses only on human specimens, while state labs encounter much more.
A portion of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport was closed for several hours recently until the state lab officials could determine that a strange coating of grease on an abandoned suitcase was curry butter and not something hazardous, said lab director Norman Crouch.
"That gives you an idea of what state laboratories are expected to do," he said. "When something happens, we are called in."