ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Emergency personnel responding to a terrorist release of chemical or biological warfare agents will be faced with a dilemma: If they enter the scene without knowing the dangers, they might become a victim. If they wait to evaluate, more people might die -- or worse, an agent could spread and cause widespread casualties.
A better option may be available soon. Researchers at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories have created a foam that begins neutralizing both chemical and biological agents in minutes. Because it is not harmful to people, it could be dispensed on the disaster scene immediately, even before casualties are evacuated.
Its developers think the decontaminating foam soon may be the best first response available in the event of a chem-bio attack.
"Whatever you do, it's best to act very quickly," says co-developer Maher Tadros of Sandia. "This foam can start neutralizing an agent or combinations of agents right away, even before you know what you're dealing with."
The U.S. has a number of strategies to deter a chemical or biological attack from ever occurring in this country, says Greg Thomas, Sandia program manager for chem-bio nonproliferation. "But if we are attacked," he says, "we'll need to have the tools available to respond."
One decontaminant, all chem-bio agents
In laboratory tests at Sandia the foam destroyed simulants of the most worrisome chemical agents (VX, mustard, and soman) and killed a simulant of anthrax -- the toughest known biological agent.
Against the anthrax simulant, the foam achieved what the researchers call a 7-log kill -- after one hour only one anthrax spore out of 10 million is still alive.
International law prohibits the Sandia researchers from possessing real chemical or biological agents, but they have taken samples of the foam to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago where the foam was tested against actual VX, mustard gas, and soman.
In those tests the foam neutralized half the remaining chemical agent molecules every 2 to 10 minutes, depending on the agent. For most chemical agents the contamination remaining after one hour of exposure to the foam is insignificant. The foam neutralizes viral particles in minutes, as well.
"It has performed superbly for all the agents we have tested it against," Tadros says.
More tests planned for April will pit the foam against real anthrax and other bacterial spores.
"If you can kill spores, you can kill germinating bacteria and you can deactivate viruses," says foam co-developer Mark Tucker of Sandia. "Spores are the most difficult."
The foam -- a cocktail of ordinary substances found in common household products -- neutralizes chemical agents in much the same way a detergent lifts away an oily spot from a stained shirt. Its surfactants (like those in hair conditioner) and mild oxidizing substances (like those in toothpaste) begin to chemically digest the chemical agent, seeking out the phosphate or sulfide bonds holding the molecules together and chopping the molecules into nontoxic pieces. How the foam kills spores -- bacteria in a rugged, dormant state -- still is not well understood, Tucker adds. The researchers suspect the surfactants poke holes in the spore's protein armor, allowing the oxidizing agents to attack the genetic material inside.
Research papers on the work have been presented at various technical gatherings of the chem-bio defense community, most recently at the National Research Council Workshop on Chem-bio Warfare Physical Protection and Decontamination in Washington, D.C., Jan. 25-26.
Sandia has filed for a patent on the substance, tentatively called Decon Foam 100.
Effective, benign, and inexpensive
Currently available sprays, fogs, or other decontaminating products typically are based on bleach, chlorinated solvents, or other hazardous or corrosive materials, Tadros says. And many new and emerging decontaminants are designed to work against only a limited number of either chemical or biological agents.
They also are expensive, he says. A new nerve-agent decontaminant made in Germany, for example, costs about $150 a pound. The Sandia foam, in comparison, could be produced for about 15 cents a pound, he estimates.
As it expands to about 100 times its liquid volume through a special nozzle that draws air into the spray, the foam fills space and automatically seeks contact with chemical or biological agents in crevices and other hiding places, or in the air for airborne agents. In several hours it collapses back to its compact liquid state and, in theory, is benign enough following a chem-bio incident to be washed down the drain like dish soap.
"The foam gets around the traditional approaches that have high water demand and use more damaging chemicals," says Thomas. "It also offers an "all-in-one" approach that would greatly simplify deployment considerations."
Like a fire retardant, the foam could be sprayed from handheld canisters. (It also works as a fire retardant.) For open areas, airports have trucks that can dispense foams over runways.
Ideally, tanks of the foam could be incorporated into the fire sprinkler systems of high-profile government buildings or other potential targets -- embassies, congressional buildings, the White House, subways, and the New York Stock Exchange, for instance.
"That's the best scenario," says Tadros. "You could flip the switch as you evacuate and begin decontaminating immediately."
Several government organizations including Sandia are working to develop sensors that would automatically detect contamination by a chemical or biological warfare agent.
The more decontaminating agents, the better
Tadros says the foam is more effective at neutralizing combinations of chem-bio agents than other existing or emerging decontaminating agents. But, he adds, this is not a competition.
"The more products we have available, the better," he says. He cautions that much research and independent testing needs to be done to verify the foam's effectiveness and ready it for real-world applications and acceptance.
Sandia has discussed deploying the foam with various military organizations, police departments, subway systems, national laboratories, and an international airport.
The U.S. Department of Energy is funding development of the foam as part of its larger Chemical and Biological Nonproliferation Program. The program, initiated through Nunn-Lugar-Domenici legislation (known as the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996), seeks to develop intelligence capabilities, sensors, and other technologies that allow the U.S. to detect, deter, and respond to terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.
The project draws on Sandia's decades of experience working with aqueous foams for blast suppression and facility security as part of its nuclear weapons mission.
Sandia is a multiprogram Department of Energy laboratory operated by Lockheed Martin Corporation. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has R&D programs contributing to national defense, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.
Sandia National Laboratories' home page is located at http://www.sandia.gov. News releases, fact sheets, and news tips can be found under the News Center button.