DHS Examines Behavior of Chem/Bio Agents in Subways

Scientists from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will convene Friday the second part of a study to simulate the behavior of airborne contaminants in the Boston subway system, the DHS science and technology wing announced Tuesday.

The Boston passenger rail system operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) served as the site of a DHS airflow test of subway systems last December and DHS has scheduled the next part of that study to occur August 20-27 in the MBTA tunnels.

Once the study is complete, DHS hopes to have a better understanding of the behavior of airborne particles from biological or chemical agents when released into the railway systems used by mass transit passengers every day and thus prepare stronger defenses against such terrorist attacks.

Teresa Lustig, the DHS scientist managing the effort, said in a statement Tuesday, "The movement of airborne contaminants can be affected by differences in temperature and humidity, so a comprehensive study requires gathering data in both winter and summer months.

"In addition to comparing the effects of seasonal conditions, a second phase of the study also allows us to test the effectiveness of some of the proposed countermeasure and response strategies derived from analysis of the December tests," she added.

To kick off the simulation, Lustig, chief of the Chemical and Biological Division at the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, will host press conferences with MBTA officials and scientists from the Argonne National Laboratory, which devised the study. They will appear on the MBTA Orange line in Boston in the morning and the MBTA Red line in the afternoon.

MBTA Transit Police Chief Paul MacMillan noted, "Our customers and employees should know that the MBTA is working closely with our federal partners in order to make the transit system as safe as possible."

The tests that day include "a rush-hour release and tracking of non-toxic, inert, odorless gas and particle tracers," according to DHS.

Although travelers will see electronic equipment stationed throughout the subway, they should not notice anything unusual in the air or otherwise, MBTA said. The equipment will sample particle and gas concentrations around more than 20 stations and inside subway cars throughout the MBTA transit system. The results of the study will help MBTA devise evacuation, ventilation, and incident response plans, the agency added.

Other participants in the study include researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and an internationalteam from ICx Technologies of Arlington, Va.; the UK Defense Science and Technology Laboratory; and the Australian Chemistry Center.

After examination of the test results have been completed, DHS will produce a final report on the results in late 2010 or early 2011, DHS projected in an internal publication titled R-Tech back in March. Although DHS will keep the data secret, scientists will provide the information to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and first responders.

TSA holds responsibility for securing US passenger rail systems, including subways. TSA Administrator John Pistole has sworn to devote more of his agency’s attention to securing mass transportation, even taking his oath of office in New York’s Penn Station this summer to symbolically acknowledge its role beyond aviation security.

DHS scientists also will use the test results in the development of the next generation of detection systems for chemical and biological agents, the department said.

Previous tests

This latest subway tests build upon others that DHS has conducted, most recently the first test in Boston, held Dec. 5-11, 2009.

In those tests, researchers examined the behavior of contaminants in cold weather and with fewer passengers using the subway, relatively speaking.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the study in a statement on Dec. 2, 2009, saying "Proactively studying and preparing for possible threats is one of our most effective strategies for fortifying our critical infrastructure. This study is one of many efforts the department is undertaking across the country to inform our emergency response planning in preparation for chemical or biological terrorist attacks."

The December study used the same inert organic dye often found in medical imaging applications and an optical brightener common to laundry detergents–both of which also are being used in the upcoming test.

Preliminary results from the December MBTA test demonstrated that both biological and chemical agents could spread through a subway system very quickly. The behavior of the agents changed in an underground environment as well, DHS reported in R-Tech. The study suggested that biological agents would cling to surfaces while gaseous chemical agents would drift around corners.

The Boston tests follow other tests DHS conducted in the DC subway of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in December 2007 and August 2008. Scientists will examine differences in the behavior of contaminants in an older system like Boston’s subway and a newer one like Washington, DC’s subway.

While DHS possessed models for the behavior of particles in a subway system, the DC and Boston tests were the first time researchers had an opportunity to see if those models held up under real-life circumstances, DHS said. Scientists plan to adjust their airflow models in accordance with the results.

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