U.S. Water News Online
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Is it anthrax or flour? Cyanide or almond
paste? Emergency crews might have a matter of minutes to determine if
they're dealing with a terrorist attack, a hoax, or mass hysteria.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is testing the
effectiveness of devices that detect toxins in the air and water, as
well as methods to clean them up.
Researchers started checking the accuracy and precision of six
hand-held cyanide detectors this week at Battelle Memorial Institute,
under a contract with the EPA's National Homeland Security Research
This is the first test run for the Cincinnati-based Homeland
Security center since the EPA announced its creation in September.
The center hired Battelle, the world's largest independent
not-for-profit research center, as well as the Research Triangle
Institute in North Carolina and the National Sanitation Foundation in
Ann Arbor, Mich.
The nation's anthrax scare in fall 2001 showed the need for a
comprehensive testing program, said Linda Fisher, EPA deputy
administrator. Suspicious mail and other items piled up, awaiting
lengthy tests, and the Senate office building in Washington had to be
fumigated several times.
The EPA has been checking pollution detection and cleanup
technologies since 1995, but the process took up to a year, too slow
for the agency's new anti-terrorism mission, said E. Timothy Oppelt,
director of the Homeland Security center.
The EPA isn't approving or rejecting the technology it tests, just
providing detailed, objective information that agencies or businesses
can use when shopping, he said.
The cyanide devices will be tested for two more weeks, and a
report on their performance could be released in April, said Ryan
James, who coordinates the testing at Battelle and demonstrated the
devices. The report will detail how each brand of detector performed
in the laboratory, in household kitchens and at water sources such as
Cyanide, which has no color but smells somewhat like almonds,
likely isn't a worry for a municipal water supply -- it would take
several tons to taint a single reservoir. But paramedics or other
agencies could use the detectors to determine if a single building's
supply has been tainted.
The six devices Battelle is testing cost anywhere from $300 to
more than $1,000, James said. After the operator collects and mixes
the sample, the machine can give a measurement in about 15 minutes.
Other technology to be tested include devices that quickly
determine if water is toxic no matter what the chemical source, and
monitors that can continuously measure water quality at a treatment
plant, James said. A rapid and large change in water cloudiness or
chlorine levels, for example, might indicate a security breach.
``It's good to see that the EPA's being proactive,'' said Julius
Ciaccia, Cleveland water commissioner.
In the past, state troopers dealing with leaking tractor-trailers
or firefighters extinguishing burning chemicals sometimes have had to
wait hours to find out what they were dealing with, said Kenneth
Morckel, director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety and
chairman of the state's Security Task Force.
``This technology is needed very badly,'' he said, ``and it needs
to be verified ... by reputable sources that aren't just trying to
make money off the product.''
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