As the U.S. reassesses security issues, one area of concern is bioterrorism. A report this week in the magazine IEEE Spectrum looks at the issue of whether technology can be used to detect such an attack.
As this ScienCentral News video reports, while there are biohazard detectors on the market, their use is quite limited.
Call for diplomacy
The cover story of IEEE Spectrum was planned long before September 11. In fact, its timing was pegged to next months planned review of the 29-year-old Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention.
Christopher Aston, adjunct professor at NYU School of Medicine, reviews the state of the art of what he calls "biowarfare canaries"technology that can provide early warning of biological warfare agents. Aston found that many great minds are hard at work on the challenges of developing devices that, like smoke detectors, could alert the population of a biological attack in time to actually save lives. Products already on the market are limited in their capabilities and inappropriate for widespread use by civilians. And while Astons paper doesnt cover Americas response in the event that such an attack could be detected, he said recently that he came away from his research convinced that "the infrastructure is lacking to treat the thousands or millions of people whod become infected."
"While a bioterrorist attack on the U.S. is a very unlikely event," Aston says, "in the event that it did happen it could have cataclysmic consequences." Aston lives in New York City and imagines that a biological attack would indeed cause terror beyond what was experienced on September 11.
"I was very touched by the response of the population here as a community in going to the aid of people whod been affected by the attack," he says. "But I wonder if the same would be true following a biological weapons attack when people are fearful that they could become infected themselves. I think the potential for panic and mass exodus from the city in such a situation would be very real."
Aston believes that the most likely way a terrorist organization could acquire biological agents or toxins, and the means to spread them effectively, is from nations that have developed them. He sees diplomacy as a major element in preventing their proliferation, and fears that the Bush Administration will turn its back on negotiations to allow inspection and verification in compliance with the 1972 convention treaty.
His rather prescient article concludes, "In this authors opinion, such arms control efforts are not only desirable but necessary as a deterrent. To discount them, and to place ones faith solely in technological solutions, is simply naive."
Gas masks hard to come by
If you were fortunate enough to have any early warning that an infectious aerosol cloud was approaching, would a gas mask protect you? Yes, if you have one (and know how to use it properly).
In Israel, citizens who dont already own them line up at gas mask distribution centers. For the thousands of American civilians who feel it would now be prudent to purchase protective masks and filters for themselves and the kids, the online waiting line is many weeks long.
We checked with two leading retailers of protective gear that ordinarily supply both military and police agencies and civilians.
US Cavalry still has one-time use protective masks available, but according to company president Randy Acton, they are now restricting sales of the "Advantage 2000" mask to the military and law enforcement in response to pressure from the manufacturer. "They are in short supply right now," Acton says.
Acton says sales of foodstuffs and survival items in general are "brisk." "They also sold well during the Y2K ramp-up," he says.
Jade Edwards, president of American School of Defense, says he would buy the M95 protective mask offered by his store "if I could get my hands on one." A notice on the site reads: "DUE TO OVERWHELMING DEMAND, WE HAVE STOPPED PROCESSING ORDERS. All existing orders will be shipped as product arrives."
Edwards says the law requires military orders to be filled first, but police and first-responder agencies are "considered civilians." He says the company plans to continue its policy of first-come, first-served except for the military.
But the store could be shut down for as long as six weeks, he says. "By the weekend I had 34,000 emails," he says. "We usually deal with police departments and their paperwork generally takes a long time. But I guess agencies that were in the process went ahead and decided to expedite."