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Lessons from the Anthrax Attacks

SMALL AMOUNTS of anthrax discovered in a Washington D.C. postal facility closed the facility for more than a year before officials were confident enough to reopen it. Costs to rid various postal buildings of anthrax exceeded $200 million. Would a larger-scale attack have a proportionally large impact on the use of public facilities? A National Research Council (NRC) committee has been examining this and other issues related to biological decontamination.

In a short book presenting their findings, the NRC researchers issued 26 recommendations, divided into four areas: risk assessment, health, sampling and decontamination standards, and decision making. Under risk assessment, for example, the authors call for the development of a system “to inexpensively identify, or partially characterize all potential threat agents, including genetically modified and emerging-threat agents.”

With such a characterization system in place, officials can make a more informed choice of decontamination method and timeline.

Another recommendation, under the health rubric, is for existing environmental-monitoring systems and syndrome-surveillance systems to be assessed for the ability to yield information that could help cost-effectively “detect and limit the spread of dangerous biological agents.”