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New technology developed after 9/11 could help pre-empt biohazard mail assaults

It likely won’t make the nightly news. Neither the victim nor the perpetrator will ever be identified, at least publicly. We can go on with our daily lives with one less piece of bad news tugging downward on our psyche. But it will cost us plenty -- in lost productivity, millions of tax dollars, anxiety and, in some cases, our dignity.

Out of sight is out of mind. But when the rash of “white, powdery substance” threats was reported heavily following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, water-cooler chatter centered on genuine concern and heartfelt angst about a nationwide disaster and possible random attacks on residential targets and people. Some parents felt threatened enough to forbid their children from retrieving mail from the curbside mailbox.

The year following 9/11, there were at least 15,000 white-powder incident reports throughout the United States, according to the FBI. Nearly all were mail-related, and all but a handful were hoaxes or cases of mistaken identity. In the cases of the confirmed anthrax attacks, five people died, nearly 20 were hospitalized and hundreds went through hazmat decontamination.

It was a scary time, but it’s old news.

Biothreats Still Real
Today, the frequency of white-powder hoaxes is nearly the same as seven years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but it just doesn’t make news. While the threat to people’s health may not be real in the event of a hoax, the threat to a livelihood exists. The economic costs to respond to any bioterrorism threat are high -- in terms of productivity and revenue loss as well as public expenditure for emergency response and cleanup. Businesses close, government offices are quarantined and school buildings are locked down.

In the aftermath of 9/11, laboratories were swamped with requests to test specimens for anthrax, delaying treatment and evaluation for others in need of medical diagnosis. Terrorist threats, even if they are hoaxes, are still terrorist threats. And by now we all know that is one of the main goals of terrorism: to create public fear.

Any bioterrorism threat must be treated seriously by authorities, meaning all emergency response teams have to be on-scene and operate according to protocol to respond, decontaminate and investigate an incident -- even when it is likely that the suspicious substance is not harmful. The cost in public resources is taxing. Those who often respond include hazmat teams, local police, firefighters, paramedics, FBI and hospital staff.

Things have changed over the past seven years: Private companies, government agencies and even K-12 school districts have sought an affordable, proactive approach to thwart biohazardous threats through the mail -- hoax or otherwise. It has been considered economically viable and even prudent to have such a detection system.

But one of the significant drawbacks to most of these systems has been that the methods and technologies often cause material harm -- discoloration, burning, opening and harmful chemical destabilization -- to the mail. And most systems use irradiation, which costs millions of dollars per unit, making it affordable only to the largest agencies or corporate enterprises.

Recently, however, new technology has been developed and deployed to detect and neutralize biohazardous agents while preserving the integrity and usability of the suspected tainted materials. Mail can be scanned and, if necessary, a biological agent can be detected and destroyed before it reaches any potential victim. The new units are affordable for school districts, hospitals, small businesses and government agencies, especially when measured against the costs of experiencing even one bioterrorism hoax.

Affordable Alternatives
Businesses and government agencies need to take into account several factors when considering a pre-emptive solution for potential biothreats through the mail. These are the same considerations that developers of next-generation solutions need to bear in mind to help protect people from harmful biological agents and health hazards that are found in many everyday situations.

An organization must weigh the economic, psychological and health risks of even one event or hoax against the cost of implementing and maintaining a preventative measure. Today, it is possible to have installed a tested and proven detection system for less than $200,000, and in some cases for as little as $90,000. Unlike expensive irradiation systems, these scanning units provide an affordable, on-site mail-protection solution for many organizations and many different situations.

Organizations must consider the importance of maintaining business continuity. As illustrated by the anthrax attacks after 9/11, even the slightest quantity of anthrax -- in one letter -- can compromise an entire organization, rendering a facility and its operations useless for a long time.

The Hamilton, N.J., post office that handled the October 2001 anthrax-laced letters was closed for more than three years after the deadly mailings. The building was decontaminated and now has sensors to detect anthrax. But all the old equipment was replaced at a cost between $80 million and $100 million dollars, according to reports by the Associated Press. According to government officials, cleanup alone was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Even with a suspected hoax, a oneday interruption could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue or productivity loss, in addition to response and cleanup costs.

Systems developed to meet the demands of business and government organizations must be designed to provide a significantly higher level of protection without material disruption to an organization’s existing mail processing system. Given the vulnerability of the mail system, it is susceptible to attack at any number of points. As such, a solution designed to protect at the point of delivery or end user provides the surest method of protection. And again, unlike most of the technologies in use today by larger organizations, biological attack protection needs to be provided without causing material harm to the mail.

New biosecurity systems must be safe to operate and safe for the environment. Technology is being used today that is completely safe to those who operate, service and work in the vicinity of the biodetection and neutralization units. As irradiation has shown, there are dangers in using high levels of radiation, and the public has become wary of technologies that rely on heavy doses of radiation.

Biohazard Defense
After several years of research and development following 9/11, a group of scientists, engineers and business professionals with experience in biochemistry, military science, high-tech systems and the computer industry assembled a small portable system that combined proven disinfection technologies -- including electromagnetic irradiation, ultraviolet, microwave, highintensity broadband beam, infrared and other light sources -- oxidization and other commercialized technologies to destroy biological contaminants and neutralize chemical toxins, including anthrax, smallpox, plague , E-coli, influenza, HIV, botulism and ricin.

Today, this system is providing security for mailrooms, ports, border crossings, military bases and other facilities around the world where effective threat and contraband detection is critical. Called MailDefender, the system also is deployed at the United Nations; departments of Justice, Defense, and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and at several embassies worldwide.

The company that developed MailDefender, BioDefense Corp., has proved that its technology kills anthrax in the mail and is safe for both the mail and individuals when used properly. Professor Hong-Liang Cui, director of the Applied Electronics Laboratory, an Army-funded laboratory at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., concluded after testing the system that “a combination of ultraviolet radiation and microwave radiation was the most effective way to destroy biological pathogens.” Hong-Liang’s team tested the system’s ability to kill biological pathogens by examining its ability to kill the biological indicator most often used as a surrogate to Bacillus anthracis -- commonly known as anthrax -- Bacillus subtilis var. niger spores. Typical killing rates obtained were in the range of 10-4 ~ 10-6, a level exceeding Army regulations, with the best results obtained approaching 10-7.

Hong-Liang’s team also tested operational issues related to mail sanitization processes. This includes material degradation effects from the sanitization process -- on mail and other material often found in mail -- plus safety issues, such as production of volatile organic compounds and radiation hazards from the device. Tests “resulted in minimum material damage and efficient killing of the biological pathogens.”

The system provides an on-site office solution for disinfecting and decontaminating mail at the point of entry and making the working environment safer and healthier. It can be installed and operated in an office or manufacturing facility without fear of illness or other hazards from using the system. MailDefender decontaminates up to 3 pounds -- approximately 150 pieces -- of mail per cycle within 55 minutes, and the units can be stacked and run simultaneously to increase capacity and decontaminate more mail faster.

MailDefender also has been adapted to mobile and fast-response situations. When a biohazardous situation occurs, nothing is more important than containing the threat to public safety and getting an emergency response team to the site quickly and safely. The mobile unit provides first responders access to protective clothing and gear. When they arrive onsite, suspicious materials instantly can be contained and decontaminated in the emergency response vehicle’s unit.

The threat of bioterrorism is still out there; it occurs every day. According to the FBI, in Washington, D.C., alone, emergency response teams still respond to an average of 10 suspected threats or hoaxes per week, costing taxpayers and business owners millions of dollars. New advances in technology and affordable solutions are an attempt to mitigate the economic loss and grant at least an acceptable level of peace of mind.

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