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Last Updated

04 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post, June 4, 2003

Readiness for Chemical Attack Criticized

Most States' Public Health Labs Lack Equipment and Expertise, Group Reports

By Ceci Connolly, Washington Post Staff Writer

Despite repeated warnings by the Bush administration that chemical agents are among the most readily available terrorist weapons, the nation's public health laboratories are "dangerously unprepared" for a chemical attack, according to a state-by-state analysis released yesterday.

The vast majority of labs do not have the equipment or expertise to identify a wide range of potential chemical weapons, including ricin, cyanide, sarin, VX and most pesticides, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Trust for America's Health reported.

"This is a huge area of vulnerability," said Shelley Hearne, the group's executive director. "There has not been an aggressive response to fill this gap."

Nearly 18 months ago, the Department of Health and Human Services identified chemical testing as one of seven priorities for state health departments. But little progress has been made, officials concede, in large measure because bioterrorism projects overshadowed all over preparedness work.

"If we have to respond to a chemical terrorism event, it will be a train wreck," said Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. "We don't have a national plan or testing methods or a lead agency for many of the laboratory activities that will be needed when a crisis occurs."

Not a single state lab has the capability to test for many of the most common -- and most hazardous -- chemicals, such as phosgene, a poison that can cause severe lung damage, and arsine, a gas that when inhaled can lead to permanent organ damage and death. Only two states, Georgia and Iowa, have the equipment and expertise to test for cyanide, although the highly toxic compound is commercially available or naturally found in 41 states.

Only eight states have drafted plans for responding to a chemical attack. HHS and the Environmental Protection Agency have yet to resolve a dispute over which department has ultimate responsibility for chemical testing.

"We know we need to develop this capacity," said Joseph Henderson, associate director for bioterrorism at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It's just not that simple."

He said that the proper lab equipment is expensive and that chemical testing requires extensive training. This year, the CDC intends to allow states to use portions of their federal grants for chemical lab expansion if they choose.

The ability to rapidly detect and identify chemical agents in an emergency "can mean the difference between life and death," the report noted, citing the intentional gassing of hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002. As victims flooded into the hospitals, physicians with no information about the nature of the substance had difficulty treating them.

Unlike the explosion of a bomb, chemical warfare can be surreptitious. Many of the 60 chemical agents on the CDC threat list are invisible, odorless and can take hours or days to cause harm.

If a suspected chemical attack occurred today, human specimens such as blood or urine would be shipped to Atlanta for testing in CDC labs. Henderson said most states are hiring coordinators and developing protocols for packaging and shipping those types of specimens.

Historically, the EPA has analyzed environmental samples, such as contaminated water. But it is less certain that the EPA would handle that testing in the event of a terrorist attack, Henderson said.

"We're getting to a better place," he said, describing the year-long negotiations. "We still need to determine roles and responsibilities."

The result, Hearne said, is "this has not been on anyone's radar screen. Homeland security probably should be stepping in refereeing this."

A spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security said he was unable to answer questions regarding the threat of chemical agents and chemical testing capabilities in the country.

Hearne was sharply critical of the administration's decision to invest large amounts of time and money in a smallpox vaccination campaign that has come to a virtual standstill.

"The HHS mentality was, 'It's bugs or bust,' " she said, referring to germ warfare. "It was a complete smallpox and plague obsession that this money was only to be used for the biological concerns."

The report said that prioritizing was a "startling oversight" given earlier warnings by the General Accounting Office and Jerome M. Hauer, the HHS assistant secretary in charge of terrorism, about the ready availability of chemical agents.

With the nation "reeling from the anthrax attacks" of 2002, Henderson said, HHS made the decision to devote most of its energy to bioterrorism in 2003. "That was the driving advice we were getting from HHS."