Suburban lab works to protect Americans from germ warfare

Monday, September 11, 2006

The new struggle since 9/11 is one for better security: Preventing terrorism or at least responding more effectively when an attack occurs. In Chicago's southwest suburbs, scientists at a national laboratory are working on that. Part of their research focuses on one form of terrorism: a biological attack, germ warfare.

At Argonne National Laboratory, they have developed a system for detecting a biological attack and tracking it. Chicago is at the forefront of this, because the city has the prototype, designed to tie into its emergency management operations center.

"In my mind, one of the bigger benefits is the early warning, but even more important than that it's the common view," said Pamela Sydelko, Argonne National Laboratory.

That means Chicago's police, fire and health departments would all get the latest information so they could respond appropriately.

Since 9/11, Argonne lab has seen funding double for research on security technology, but the catch is that useful technology has to be relatively cheap.

"We can develop technologies that can do wonderful things, but if they cost ridiculous amounts of money, they're not very practical," said Alan Foley, Argonne National security director.

One area the lab is concentrating on is a sensor for biological terrorism. A major challenge in a biological attack is identifying what exactly has been released into the environment.

At Argonne, they are developing technology that can identify hundreds of possible threats, but then actually zero in on the one that has been used.

It is like creating a fingerprint for different biological threats. These dots identify this test sample as the plague. An anthrax threat would have a different signature. This machine Argonne helped develop reads the biological fingerprints.

"What we're developing here is something that's very rapid, very inexpensive, but you have very high confidence levels in the outcome," said Daniel Schabacker, Argonne National Laboratory.

High confidence is exactly what is needed, when not only the victims, but the emergency responders have their lives on the line.

This pilot program of biohazard sensors is in place now in Chicago and Cook County. It has not been fully tested yet, but Argonne says it will be within the next few weeks.

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