The Field Testing Dilemma and LRN Chemical Laboratories

During a recent investigation of letters containing a white powder sent to a targeted company in several states, a common field detection device failed to identify the white powder. First responders used the device, known as the HazMatID, to try to identify the white powder from one of the letters in the field. Their instrument gave them a result that insinuated the presence of a non-toxic, inert chemical. Fortunately, the responders had enough white powder left to send a sample to a public health laboratory for testing. The lab later identified the powder as a toxic chemical that could potentially cause illness if inhaled or ingested. The responders had learned a valuable lesson, and were fortunate that no one had been sickened by the white powder. The incident was a reminder to other first responders, though, to be constantly aware of the limitations of their own field-detection devices. 

New Technologies: For Better or Worse 

Over the last few years, first responders in the field have been placed in the difficult position of trying, with limited guidance, to identify various “unknown powders.” Further complicating the situation are the numerous new field instruments that promise to identify “unknowns” with the push of a button. On the chemical side alone, there are portable devices such as infrared and Raman spectrometers, photo-ionization detectors, and gas chromatograph/mass spectrometers. Many manufacturers tout their products as the absolute best in the identification of unknown chemicals, but that assertion cannot be accepted without also considering under what conditions such statements hold true. To begin with, a trained first responder must know beforehand what instrument to use and what it can and cannot identify. 

Not all authorities agree with the manufacturers’ statements about the versatility of certain field instruments. The Association of Public Health Laboratories’ Statement of Position is that the association “strongly opposes” the use of biological and chemical agent detection kits and devices for field testing “in the absence of performance standardization, field validation, and certified individuals trained in the application of these kits and devices [emphasis added].” It is “essential,” the APHL Statement continued, “that a standardized validation, approval, and training process for these kits and devices be developed and implemented as soon as possible.” Despite the association’s strong disclaimer, there is still no standardized validation process or established protocol governing the use of these field-detection devices. For almost a decade the LRN has been responsible for maintaining an integrated network of state and local public-health, federal, military, and international laboratories Moreover, sales personnel still make claims about their particular devices that have not been tested under laboratory conditions, let alone field conditions – and anecdotes abound about trained chemists working in a laboratory who cannot get this or that device to measure what the manufacturer claims it does. Such problems present a difficult dilemma for first responders with a need to know about the efficacy of field testing for unknown chemicals. 

Fortunately, there is an independent organization – the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) – that can provide the guidance needed on these instruments. The LRN laboratories possessing a chemical testing/validation capability already are reaching out to the nation’s first responders, and to the health and medical communities in their own jurisdictions. In this way, they can become familiar with the first-responder process involving chemical-exposure incidents and determine how their own roles might complement response-and-recovery operations. The ultimate goal is the protection of the first responders themselves as well as anyone else coming into contact with suspicious substances. 

The Anatomy of a Network 

The LRN, which became operational in 1999, was established by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), working in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Association of Public Health Laboratories. The mission of the LRN is to provide a nationwide coordinated laboratory response to bioterrorism, chemical terrorism, and other public health threats and emergencies. For almost a decade the LRN has been responsible for maintaining an integrated network of state and local public-health, federal, military, and international laboratories and, by doing so, enhancing the public health infrastructure by integrating the expertise and capacity of labs both nationwide and globally. 

What are called the LRN-C (LRN Chemical) laboratories – which are headquartered at state public-health laboratories in cities across the nation – possess varying levels of capability. Currently, 62 state, territorial, and metropolitan public health laboratories participate in the LRN’s chemical-detection tasks. A designation of Level 1, 2, or 3 defines the individual lab’s LRN-C capabilities; each level builds upon the preceding level. All LRN-C members participate in Level 3 activities, which involve working with the health and medical communities, and first responders, in the collection, storage, packaging, and shipment of clinical specimens. 

All LRN-C members also work to develop a coordinated response plan for their state and geographical regions. The laboratories designated as Level 1 or Level 2 are tasked with the analysis of clinical specimens to determine the presence of certain chemicals. Thirty-seven labs currently participate in Level 2 activities. These labs are trained to detect exposure to a limited number of toxic chemical agents, such as cyanide or toxic metals present in human clinical specimens. Ten laboratories participate in Level 1 activities, and are trained to detect exposure to a greater number of chemicals such as mustard agents, nerve agents, and certain toxic industrial chemicals. 

The LRN-C provides continuous support to its members, ensuring they are trained and proficient in the use of CDC-developed protocols and methods. These laboratories participate in a rigorous quality-assurance program to ensure that network labs provide precise, accurate, high-quality data. In a similar manner – and in an effort to work even more closely with their partners – many of the LRN-C laboratories are willing to help train or assess the proficiency of programs in which hand-held and/or portable instruments are used to identify unknown chemicals. This guidance is designed not only to assist first responders in the decision-making process but also to help them determine how much confidence to place in these devices. 

Valuable Partners for First Responders 

First responders obviously play a valuable role in coping with a chemical incident or “event.” They will, more often than not, be the first ones on the scene and will have to make a number of quick decisions about what they find. The goal of the LRN-C laboratories is to help the first responders make those decisions from a scientific point of view so that those at or close to the scene of the incident are safe. There are two principal issues that must be addressed when deciding about using portable devices to identify unknown contaminants in the field. The first is to consider how the results of the field test may change the incident response. 

If the confidence in the field screening is minimal then it is perhaps better to leave the instrument on the engine. One of the principal problems in field testing is that the chemical analysis could use up the entire sample – leaving nothing for a confirmation test later. The second issue, which is probably even more important when unknown powders are involved, is the perception of a credible threat. It may be out of the individual responder’s comfort zone to be required to identify what are, or are not, credible threats. That is when it may be advisable to bring in an FBI WMD (weapons of mass destruction) coordinator – and the LRN-C laboratories for consultation.

Those seeking the names of the laboratorians in the state public health laboratory nearest to them and the answers to questions about the Laboratory Response Network and/or the Association of Public Health Laboratories should contact Jennifer Beck at APHL (

Richard A. France

Richard A. (Rick) France, a CT coordinator for the Florida Department of Health’s Bureau of Laboratories, has been a Chemical Terrorist Laboratory Coordinator at the Bureau’s Level 3 laboratory in Tampa since 2004; the Tampa laboratory is a part of the nationwide Laboratory Response Network. Level 3 CT coordinators are responsible for working not only with various federal, state, and local agencies in their jurisdiction but also with first responders and the health and medical communities to provide training and coordination on matters related to chemical terrorism preparedness and awareness.



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