In July of this year, DomPrep and special invited guests had the honor of being invited to tour the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Organized by DomPrep40 Advisor Major General Stephen Reeves, USA (Ret.), the day began with introductions of ECBC’s leadership staff – Joseph Wienand, Joe Corriveau, Alvin Thornton, Jim Baker, Mary Wade, and a number of other ECBC participants. The staff shared their own insights, as well as a huge and helpful quantity of background information, about the facility, its changes over the past 80+ years, and the Army laboratory’s long-standing support of the warfighter by providing critical defense capabilities.

ECBC has a long history dating back to the early 20th century. In October 1917, the area known as Gunpowder Neck became the U.S. Army’s first chemical weapons arsenal. Over the years, the Center’s mission has evolved from a major focus on chemical threats (early 1900s), to research and development (mid-1900s), to biological threats (late 1900s), to emerging threats (2000s). The established mission of ECBC, currently led by Technical Director Joseph Wienand, is to “Integrate lifecycle science, engineering, and operations solutions to counter CBRNE [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive] threats to U.S. forces and the nation.”

Before leaving the briefing room, the visitors were instructed on the safety and security measures they would have to follow when traveling within and between facilities. Engineering controls, such as CBR filtration and air monitoring, reduce the risk of exposure to airborne toxins. Personal protective equipment is required in certain designated areas to avoid physical contact with potentially dangerous substances. Warning signs posted throughout ECBC facilities indicate which areas are “controlled access” and/or “restricted.” In addition to 24-hour surveillance, all facilities are also tied into the 911 emergency response system.

The first stop on the tour was the Bioscience laboratory, which is full of expensive high-tech equipment for DNA testing and identification. With the help of known DNA sequences and overlapping, scientists are able to identify new sequences. This capability is particularly useful for: (a) combatting terrorists who, by following a simple procedure, can make a small change in an agent to get a big result; and/or (b) identifying different strains of pandemic outbreaks. One sequencing instrument used in this lab is even capable of processing 96 bacterial samples in a single run. Using libraries to minimize sequencing errors, this capability significantly reduces the time needed for the DNA-to-identification process.

Downstairs, the McNamara Life Sciences Research Facility – a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) high-containment biological facility – is fully equipped with an alarm system, PPE (personal protective equipment), negative pressurization, and shower. At the time of the tour, the lab was completely shut down for its biannual decontamination. Because of the sensitivity and dangers associated with the agents found in this facility, the storage area requires two people to sign in, and to enter the facility by using two locks. In addition to the government-required monthly inventory inspections, ECBC also conducts annual internal inspections of 100 percent of the inventory.

In the most interior (and most secure) area of the building are the biodefense, animal, toxicology, and chemical research laboratories. The hallways are lined with small windows used for viewing, from the outside, work being carried out within the labs. One hallway is equipped with a large black box and laser safety curtains, which are used for studies on laser-induced fluorescence measurements of aerosolized agents. That unit was, in fact, designed to test and process the anthrax-contaminated postal letters that were discovered in late 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The next stop on the tour was the McNamara Glove Box Facility, which is used for toxicology work and, at times, contains the most dangerous toxins on Earth. This is a new state-of-the-art facility that has the ability to actually generate aerosol atmospheres. The ergonomic design of the glove box provides three chambers – for exposure, observation, and working – which are easily, and individually, accessed by researchers. After this stop, attendees were ushered onto a bus and headed for the next building on the tour.

The Sample Receipt Facility is designed to receive, triage, and analyze unknown samples – all within a single building. After passing through two barred doors, visitors enter the explosive-sample receipt room, where potentially explosive samples (e.g., unearthed, discarded, or unknown military and other items in the form of liquids, solids, and surfaces) are handled. A just-received item is placed inside a glove box for initial analysis (sometimes with the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and/or U.S. Department of Homeland Security) before any testing is done. The explosive is then separated, within the box, from the solid or liquid sample.

After separation is complete, jars containing the sample are taken to the Receipt Lab High Bay, where an overhead heel tank full of sodium hydroxide is connected to sinks (which are fitted with protective hoods), to help neutralize explosives. Another glove box is used for sampling. Upon leaving this area, researchers are required to enter a four-stage decontamination room protected by 24-hour surveillance, negative pressure rooms, and HEPA filters. All necessary precautions are taken for the safety of the researchers and all others within the facility.

The Sample Triage Lab and Chemical and Toxin Analysis Lab are where the chemicals can be extracted from the sample material. To protect personnel in the lab from dangerous fumes, chemical agents are kept under hoods fitted with chemical security sashes that prevent leakage. In the rare situations when samples do escape, snorkels located throughout the lab are able to filter the released toxins out of the air. Two bio-analysis suites receive the samples – which are inserted into a “pass-through” that can open from only one side at a time to prevent unnecessary exposure and contamination. After the sample leaves the Sample Receipt Facility, the client knows what the sample is not. The next step is to identify what the toxin is.

The Advanced Chemistry Laboratory (ACL) – across the courtyard, with three wings housing 20 labs – is where researchers identify what the sample is. Visitor badges and protective goggles are required before entering the facility. Testing in this building is performed on chemical warfare agents, liquid and solid bore samples, and synthesized active-threat compounds. The ACL’s Decontamination Science Branch Room is equipped with high-tech labs, fitted with much larger hoods, to accommodate the needs of modern technology. This enables researchers to test almost anything that may be contaminated – thus serving as a clearing house for risk assessments.

At the ACL, risk mitigation is determined based on the route of entry: inhalation (vapor test micro-chambers determine how much vapor comes out after decontamination); and contact exposure (contact test – skin surrogate used to see how much was transferred). With dosing and imaging stations and environmental control chambers to control humidity and temperature, a suite of technologies can extract liquids, sample vapors, quantitate, and analyze – all in the same room. The ACL is staffed by a multidisciplinary team trained to carry out all of the following tasks: methodology development, performance testing, creative model, decontamination development, and technology development.

The ACL lab currently is incorporating a new approach using vapor emission rates and factors to determine the onset of toxicological symptoms based on various scenarios. Because the data must be reproducible and similar, this new approach provides a higher accuracy for hazard risk assessments. To determine, based on these risk assessments, what hazardous mitigation is specifically needed, the facility uses its Traditional Agents Lab and Emerging Threats Lab. In addition to studying and identifying existing threats, the next stop on the tour demonstrated ECBC’s innovation and creation capabilities.

The Berger Engineering Complex: Advanced Design and Manufacturing (ADM) – ECBC Prototype Integration Facility (PIF) – is staffed by 140 specialists with varying backgrounds devoted to designing, building, testing, and reporting to turn a product around quickly, from idea to reality. The rapid product-development process at ADM-PIF balances risk, cost, and performance against schedule requirements. The result is very fast concept-to-product production (<180 days) using a “3-D data capture” process. In the domestic preparedness environment, there are numerous unknowns, so it requires a multi-disciplinary staff to get things accomplished.

Everyone on the team at ADM-PIF has to be on board – traditional artists and animators are closely integrated and working with scientists and engineers. This multi-discipline team offers: (a) methodology development; (b) performance testing; (c) creative modeling; and (d) technology development. Beginning with a science or engineering idea, artists and animators create images that can be used to back up those ideas. Full-motion video can be used for training, talking points, technical overviews, and even microbiology renderings, with 100 percent technically accurate images. According to Mark Schlein, one of the guides, “Each one of our capabilities is valuable alone, but the real power and synergy comes when they are put together.”

The Rapid Technologies Lab uses reverse-engineering 3D for additional manufacturing and imaging. Laser scanners in the lab are capable of recreating objects through the use of laser images, which are then output to 3D printers using, rather than ink, photo polymer (or other materials such as ABS plastic, glass and nylon powder, titanium, stainless steel, and bronze). Thus, an idea is transformed from a sketch into a functional prototype. Many of these ideas result in the development of the defensive CBRN equipment needed by today’s warfighters.

In 2006, ECBC developed and produced the Buffalo Mine Protected Clearance Vehicle (MPCV) to use as a training aid for combat units that may encounter improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One of these trucks, as well as ECBC’s CBRN Unmanned Ground Reconnaissance (CUGR) advanced concept technology demonstrator (ACTD), were housed in the two-story high Test Bay Area at the time of the tour.

The Bay Area also houses the Joint NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) Reconnaissance System Increment II, which is designed for warfighters in the urgent-need phase. Cost sharing and collaborative efforts are used to purchase equipment for the system such as radios, PPE, HazMat boots, air compressors, various tools, decontamination showers, fire extinguishers, and other systems and devices. With the safety of soldiers in mind, all equipment is packed for ease of use, access, and inventory. Because CBRNE threats are expected to continue to grow and change, ECBC is devoted to keeping up with current and emerging threats to protect civilians as well as warfighters.

ECBC officials and managers are currently focusing special attention on three emerging threats: lethal weapons (G- and V-type nerve agents); nonlethal/incapacitating weapons (riot control agents); and xenobiotic-based weapons (foreign chemicals in a living system such as dioxins and aflatoxin; non-attribution potential such as cancer-causing agents; and biotransformation-bioactivation agents).

In short, the threat is here and the weapons technology required is fully mature. Through advances in science and technology research and development, ECBC is finding the answers needed to provide the defense capabilities required to meet the ever-emerging and frequently changing chemical threats of today, tomorrow, and the years to come.

Catherine L. Feinman

Catherine L. Feinman, M.A., joined Domestic Preparedness in January 2010. She has more than 35 years of publishing experience and currently serves as editor of the Domestic Preparedness Journal, DomesticPreparedness.com, and The Weekly Brief. She works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and recovery communities. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University.

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