Thursday, February 08, 2007

Changes made to bioterror warning program

Changes made to bioterror warning program
By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — An early-warning program in more than 30 cities aimed at detecting biological weapons was bungled by the Homeland Security Department and has since undergone a revamping, according to a federal watchdog.

Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner released a report Wednesday citing a series of problems in the BioWatch program, which costs $1 million a year per city. Among the issues was sloppy handling and storage of sensors designed to give early warnings of a bioterrorism attack.

Such problems "could jeopardize (the department's) ability to detect biological agents and protect the populace of the United States," the report says.

Jeff Steifel, BioWatch's program manager, says the problems cropped up because the program was created quickly in 2003 in response to concerns that terrorists could spread deadly biological agents in densely populated areas.

Homeland Security officials say they have "taken action to resolve the issues," the report says. Steifel says that "without question, those issues (raised by the report) are resolved."

BioWatch allows government scientists to test the air daily in high-risk cities to see whether anthrax, smallpox or other biological agents have been released. In many cases, existing air pollution monitoring machines were fitted with filters that are removed several times a day and taken to state health labs for testing.

Locations of sensors and the list of cities in the monitoring program are classified for security reasons, but Steifel confirmed that the list includes New York City and Washington.

The number of sensors per city also is secret. But in some cities, Steifel says, 40 sensors were added over the past year, indicating there are at least dozens — and maybe hundreds — in place in each city. Most are outdoors, Steifel says, but some are being added in airport terminals and other places indoors where crowds gather.

The program is run by and paid for by the Homeland Security Department. The Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also play a role in placing and maintaining the machines and overseeing the lab tests.

Last March, the EPA's own inspector general criticized the agency for improperly placing and monitoring some of the machines.

Wednesday's report cited a host of problems but said all had been resolved to the inspector general's satisfaction. Among the problems:

•At 84% of the labs, exposed filters were not transferred properly from the field.

•At 74% of the labs, bags holding the filters weren't properly decontaminated.

•In 65% of the cities checked, procedural errors were made during handoffs from field workers to lab technicians.

"You won't find those issues prevalent today," Steifel says.

He says the program has successfully run 3 million tests without any false positives. In three years, there have been 15 positive hits for one of the six agents — but all were attributed to naturally occurring bacteria.