Guest Commentary: Resolving

Corporate headquarters. Abortion clinics. University facilities. By now, most first responders would agree that “suspicious white powder” calls are no longer limited to potential terrorist attacks against government buildings and complexes. With the recent-year increases in the number of domestic bioterrorism scares, first responders have an even more pressing need to employ the most successful strategies for resolving such calls.

When a suspicious substance is found, first responders are generally faced with a decision: either identify the potential biohazard in order to determine the threat level; or determine, before conducting an identity analysis, whether or not the substance poses a genuine threat. There are several factors that are almost immediately considered before this decision is made, including the following:

  • whether or not a verbal or written threat was received in conjunction with the discovery of a potentially hazardous material, or if the materials were received by someone (e.g., a senior government official) who might be a potential terrorist target;
  • whether or not a reasonable explanation exists for the unknown substance to be in the area in which it was found (e.g., baby powder in a public restroom changing station).

However, in the time it takes to sift through this information, the damage – both in terms of economics and in human life – may already have taken place. The damage will continue to escalate; moreover, until reliable information verifying (or, preferably, negating) the presence of a credible threat is obtained. The longer it takes to clear an incident, the more severe its economic impact will be, and the higher the likelihood of “copycat” incidents generating publicity and press coverage.

A New and Obvious Paradigm

For this reason, a new paradigm in any biohazard-detection strategy should be obvious: In order to quickly make the most accurate and most helpful decisions, in terms of public safety, first responders should initially determine if the substance they are investigating represents a legitimate threat or is merely a hoax.

To implement what would be a new standard operating procedure, first responders will need a tool that allows them to rapidly and accurately assess a threat on-site – a tool, moreover, that provides quick and accurate information about the validity of the threat, and thereby empowers the responders to make knowledgeable and confident decisions. One such tool would be a broad-spectrum screen that can be quickly and effectively used in the field.

Until recently, verification of a threatening substance has been limited to laboratory-based tests. These tests, which attempt to identify specific agents, involve performing a series of time-consuming and expensive analyses at the scene. Moreover, these “specific-agent” tests are available for only a handful of the substances that could be used as biological weapons. One result is that first responders are often forced to make critical incident-closure decisions based on limited and/or unreliable information.

Because biological agents carry common signatures, a broad-spectrum screen can be used to determine a “threat/no threat” result for all potential biological weapons identified to date by the federal Centers for Disease Control. Moreover, this determination can now be made in the field in less than 10 minutes from manual calibration to direct readout. In comparison, traditional methods for biological-threat detection can take several hours or even days.

The availability of broad-spectrum screens that can be used in the field is one of the major technological advances made in the security industry since the anthrax attacks in 2001. The tests available today provide not only a more accurate but also a more comprehensive identification of the nature of an unknown substance. A test can quickly be performed on-site, moreover, to determine whether or not an unknown substance poses an imminent threat to the incident site itself. In addition, broad-spectrum screens allow the first responder to evaluate samples for multiple biological agents at the same time.

False Positives and Other Problem Areas

Several methodologies are used as the platforms for broad-spectrum screens designed to detect biological hazards. One is a protein assay. Protein is found in everything that is biological in nature; however, for that very reason, diverse powders – e.g., flour, cornstarch, and even coffee creamers – can elicit the same positive result in a protein assay as anthrax spores would. Moreover, protein can be found in many other substances that are not considered to be “biological” – a laundry detergent enriched or fortified with enzymes, for example. A protein assay conducted on table salt that has been touched by someone’s bare hands also could result in a positive response. The bottom line here is that, although protein assays can be used by first responders to determine the threat/no threat potential of an unknown foreign substance, there is frequently a high probability of false positives.

A better methodology to consider, therefore, would be a broad-spectrum test for microbial DNA, which can be generic enough to detect all threats, yet discerning enough to rule out hoaxes. All bacteria, bacterial spores, and many viruses contain the same type of DNA that is easily detected in a DNA screening test. Use of such tests therefore would minimize and perhaps eliminate the high frequency of positive results experienced when testing for biological components such as proteins and lipids. In addition, the sensitivity of DNA screens can easily be adjusted – a calibration that is more difficult to achieve with protein assays.

The publicity that surrounded the post-9/11 anthrax scares has now subsided somewhat. However, as first-responder agencies and organizations well know, emergency workers continue to face multiple biological-threat incidents on a daily basis. Despite the fact that most such incidents are hoaxes, first responders still must treat each “white powder” call as an imminent threat. Tools such as broad- spectrum screens give them a quick and accurate way to potentially save lives and at the same time reduce the economic impact of these bio-terrorism events. Of perhaps greater importance is the fact that use of a broad-spectrum screen can significantly reduce the amount of time consumed when hoaxes tie up critical first-responder resources. These are all good reasons why a threat-level assessment should now be recognized as the first line of defense–and should become standard operating procedure – when future calls are received reporting a “suspicious white powder.”

Buck Somes

Buck Somes is vice president of GenPrime Inc. Founded in 1997 in Spokane, Washington, GenPrime has developed products that key customers and senior industry officials have hailed as breakthroughs in microbiological testing technology. In 2002, the company launched Prime Alert, the only field-proven and independently evaluated assay available for use by first responders that screens for all CDC-identified bacterial agents. For additional information about GemPrime or Prime Alert, visit the company website at



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