Biological Weapons: What Role Should Environmental Health Specialists Take in Protecting Our Communities?

Article excerpt

The history of war has been punctuated by incidents of and allegations about the use of biological weapons. The allegations and incidents have continued even in recent years, despite the Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972. The treaty that resulted from that convention prohibits the development, possession, and stockpiling of pathogens or toxins in quantities that cannot be justified by prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes. Recently, however, the significance of the threat posed by biological weapon research and production in the Persian Gulf region has been much discussed.

It is a widely held belief that Iraq, for example, maintains the capacity to research and produce biological weapons, although there was no evidence of the use of biological weapons during the Persian Gulf War. The Tokyo subway incident in 1995, involving the chemical agent sarin, demonstrated the potential impact of toxic materials and the relative ease with which they can be used by terrorists. In 1984, salad bars in Oregon restaurants were intentionally contaminated with Salmonella typhimurium, which demonstrated that the United States is not immune from terrorist acts. The incidents in which biological agents have been used as offensive weapons of war or terrorism have been few, but the threat is nonetheless real.

In the case of an incident of terrorism in the United States, it is likely that local emergency response will involve environmental health specialists, particularly those who have been trained in disease investigation and/or hazardous materials incident response. Response to a threat that a population will be exposed to a biological agent requires a few basic preparations.

Historically, biological agents developed and used for warfare have been those that are likely to cause death in a high proportion of persons exposed. The earliest on record also showed some morbid ingenuity. For example, in the 14th century, the Tatar forces, at war with what is now the Ukraine, experienced an outbreak of plague and responded by catapulting cadavers of the deceased into the city of Kaffa to cause a plague outbreak. Smallpox was introduced to Native Americans during the French and Indian War to reduce the threat against the British. Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) has also been commonly described as a biological threat in war. Until 1971, the United States stockpiled pathogens such as B. anthracis, Clostridium botulinum toxin, Brucella sp., Staphylococcus sp., encephalitis virus, and other lethal, incapacitating, or anticrop agents.

In contemporary times, it has been reported that Iraq admitted to researching offensive biological weapons including B. anthracis, rotavirus, camelpox virus, aflatoxin, C. botulinum toxins, mycotoxins, and an anticrop agent.

Biological weapons present a threat when used on the battlefield. The greatest risk, however, might be delivery of such pathogens through terrorist acts. Several characteristics unique to biological agents necessitate a proactive response to the threat these agents pose. They are, for example, characterized by low visibility, high potency, relatively easy accessibility, and easy delivery. Such factors make the general population vulnerable.

A localized terrorist act is the most likely scenario in which the expertise of environmental health specialists would be called upon. The framework for effective response to such incidents includes six components:

* Trained first responders who can assess the potential for the presence of pathogens or chemicals may be able to reduce the potential others in the area will be exposed or take steps to contain the release. …