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Can You Really Recover from a Bioterrorist Attack?

April 20, 2010

Recovery is one of those great unknowns in the preparedness world. We usually spend some time talking about mitigation, and lots of time on preparedness. All of our planning goes to response efforts. And then we kind of ignore the recovery phase. Unfortunately, this is a HUGE part of resiliency. If you can’t rebuild, you’re not very resilient.

In a conventional attack, things get blown up, patterns of life are disrupted and people are killed. Terrible, terrible tragedy. But you rebuild the bridge, the building, the train line, buy a new bus, and ultimately, society moves on.

What if the attack, though, caused you have to avoid the area, due to ongoing health concerns. What if the area was contaminated with anthrax, or F. tularensis (which causes tularemia) or ricin? You’ve got to clean the area before you can even start tearing it down to rebuild. And I’m not talking about Spic ‘n Span here, either, folks.

In a recent article in the Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science journal, authors Crystal Franco and Nidhi Bouri looked at what decontaminating an area that had been involved in a bioterror attack would look like, and why — as bad as the immediate attack would be — the clean up could be so much more devastating. For example, the authors note:

[R]emediation of the 2001 anthrax attacks was expensive and time consuming. Costs for the 2001 anthrax decontamination response were estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars (not including lost time and productivity costs), and some facilities could not be reopened for more than 2 years.

The article is called, Environmental Decontamination Following a Large-Scale Bioterrorism Attack: Federal Progress and Remaining Gaps, and is available (for now? for a short time? maybe not really?) in a PDF format here.

The authors list a myriad of problems that would hamper decontamination efforts, and frankly, the list reads like the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism report.

  • Unclear federal roles and responsibilities
  • Research is not coordinated among federal agencies
  • Research is underfunded
  • Resources and methods lacking for sampling, testing, and analysis
  • Unresolved scientific and technical issues
  • No federal decisions on decontamination standards
  • Too few trained personnel
  • Inadequate guidance for building owners

To their credit, the authors pair these criticisms up with a series of five recommendations on how best to move forward.

  1. DHS should define federal agency decontamination roles and responsibilities
  2. Congress should take note of all of the recent reports expounding on the viability and likelihood of a biological attack and increase funding for decontamination research
  3. That research should seek to answer questions related to all aspects of decontamination, including scientific, technical, and social scientific
  4. The Administration must invest in human resources (read: manpower) for decontamination activities
  5. Federal agencies need to develop guidance and a list of approved decontamination vendors for use by private industry — if they’ve got to pay for clean up of their own buildings, the least the feds can do is recommend a good plumber decontaminator

The long and the short of it all? Like most of the things in this field, we’ve got a long way to go.

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