BUILDINGS - Smarter Facilities Management


Bioterrorism and the Built Environment

A Look Back At the Anthrax Scare


With the Hart Senate Office Building in the background, environmental workers don biopaks on Capitol Hill on Nov. 29, 2001, in preparation to clean the Hart building. The workers installed chemically resistant pipe and barriers to fumigate the building that was closed for six weeks.

Interior Plants: Can They Protect Us From Bioterrorist Threats?


June Medford recently came up with the idea of using tiny plants as weapons in the war against terrorism.

Now armed with a half-million-dollar grant from the Pentagon, the plant biologist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, is trying to genetically engineer Arabidopsis (a relative of the mustard plant) to change color rapidly if it senses a biological or chemical agent. Medford's laboratory is among several across the country where scientists are developing innovative ways to respond to terrorist attacks. Already, plants have successfully demonstrated their ability to defend a building in case of a bioterrorism attack through its ventilation ducts.

Dr. B.C. Wolverton, PhD, Picayune, MS, a former scientist with the Department of Defense (DOD), indicates that the most likely approach terrorists might use in a bioterrorist attack is to employ an aerosolizer to release biological and chemical warfare agents into a building's ventilation ducts.

According to Wolverton, scientists have made many discoveries during the last 30 years, leading to an understanding of how plants can purify both air and water. DOD studies showing plant ecosystems' abilities to remove toxic chemicals from contaminated water were first published in 1973. NASA published studies in 1984 showing how interior plants could remove volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) from sealed test chambers.

Scientists in Germany, Australia, and Japan have recently confirmed these findings and added new knowledge to the field. There is now sufficient scientific evidence to support the concept of using interior plants to clean the air in hermetically sealed buildings having little or no mechanical ventilation.

Wolverton points out that hospitals in Japan are adding plants to take advantage of their air-cleaning properties. In many instances, existing buildings such as these need only modifications to their HVAC systems to create a closed internal air-recirculating system, thus reducing their vulnerability to bioterrorism. Additionally, high-efficiency, plant-based filters can increase internal air purification.

Wolverton further states that high-efficiency, plant-based filters employ the adsorption properties of activated carbon, germicidal irradiation of ultraviolet light, and chemical-degrading properties of plants and their root microbes to create a bioregenerating (self-sustaining) filter system. This process increases the filtering ability of each plant by several hundred times.

Now that threats of terrorist attacks have become a reality of everyday life, the ability of interior plants to protect against bioterrorist threats should not be ignored.

MJ Gilhooley is the marketing director for the Los Angeles-based Plants at Work organization. For more information, click here

Plants At Work

It began when a letter was opened in Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle's suite at the Hart Senate Office Building in late October 2001. With the knowledge of the anthrax-laden missive, the bioterrorism scare started and deepened when anthrax spores were found in a Washington, D.C. postal facility.

As the crisis continued, spreading from Florida to New York and resulting in the deaths of five people and widespread public concern, there was still the question of how to clean up the contaminated facilities. Ashland Inc.'s Drew Industrial, based in Booton, NJ, is a major supplier of specialty products and services that was involved with the innovative procedure to eliminate the anthrax contamination from the Hart building and the Brentwood postal facility.

Ashland, a Fortune 500 company, is divided into four major business units. Inside its specialty chemical division, Drew Industrial is one of the first water treatment services, dating back to 1907. One of the three largest global water management and treatment businesses, Drew provides chemical products and services to customers whose needs include wastewater treatment, processing water for manufacturing and water used for heating and cooling. The firm is a market leader in water treatment in the commercial marketplace, especially in hospitals, universities, and large office buildings.

Deadly Threat

The original Daschle letter contained a large dose of unusually pure anthrax. The dose was composed of extremely fine particles that float in the air undetected. Anthrax spores are extraordinarily hardy “able to withstand high heat, pressure, and drying out “and can remain infectious for decades. After the 1 million-square-foot Hart building was closed due to contamination, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contacted a number of different groups to evaluate the situation, including the American Chemistry Council, headquartered in Arlington, VA.

Ashland is one of the founding members of the American Chemistry Council's Responsible Care® initiative. Through this initiative, American Chemistry Council members demonstrate their commitment to the health and safety of their employees, communities, and the environment. Drew Industrial is also a member of a panel within the American Chemistry Council devoted to the safe application and management of chlorine dioxide. This chemical was one of the product applications evaluated by the EPA for the destruction of the anthrax spores.

As a group, the chlorine dioxide panel sent its recommendations to the EPA in response to its query. The agency requested that one or two experts from the panel assist the EPA with its evaluation. We worked with the EPA, the U.S. government, the U.S. Senate, basically trying to be a good corporate citizen,” says Harold Moffat, vice president, Marketing & Specialty Chemical Sales, Drew Industrial, Ashland Inc., Booton, NJ.

One of the people from Ashland went to Washington, D.C., planning a three- to four-day stay that turned into 30 continuous days,” says Moffat. After reviewing all of the available technologies, the government decided that chlorine dioxide would be the best overall approach for the anthrax remediation at the Hart building.

Neutralizing the Attack

Late October 2001, the clean-up project began in Senator Daschle's 3,000-square-foot, two-floor office. The gas was created off-site from two chemicals; these were blended and pumped into the office space. Chlorine dioxide breaks down with exposure to light, so to maximize effectiveness, the facility's windows were blacked out prior to fumigation.

As many as 200 workers worked to clean other senators' offices. Ashland provided the chemicals and the personnel to produce the gaseous chlorine dioxide. Daschle's office was stripped bare to the concrete floor and plaster walls, and the internal walls and ceiling tiles were also removed.

The air-conditioning and other types of HVAC systems in the building presented certain issues,” says Moffat. The following month, a second remediation project was completed to treat the HVAC system. Overall, the Hart building remediation project took approximately two months, with an additional three months for general cleaning.

At the Daschle suite, we basically developed, over a two-month period along with the EPA and some of the contractors on the job, these technologies where we safely apply gas chlorine dioxide into a confined space in the amount of time and under the conditions to destroy the anthrax spores,” says Moffat. After the completion of the Hart building project, Ashland collaborated with the United States Postal Service (USPS) to decontaminate anthrax inside the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C. This project began in January 2002 and the actual fumigation was performed in November 2002.

Although the Brentwood facility project was very complex, it was well-coordinated with the EPA, the District of Columbia Public Health officials, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). To maximize effectiveness, the approximately 700,000-square-foot facility was completely sealed, including its 100 docking doors and 235 skylights. After the anthrax neutralization, the USPS decided to modernize the Brentwood building's interiors to improve the employees' perceptions of the facility and to reduce any lingering odors.

The cleanup at the Brentwood facility offered the framework for the remediation project in Trenton, NJ, on a postal facility contaminated by anthrax-filled letters. Because of these events, there is a greater awareness of security and life-safety issues in terms of HVAC equipment, especially regarding toxic mold.

Proactive Approaches

In response to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent anthrax scare, many facilities professionals limited access to their buildings from unauthorized personnel and changed their mail handling techniques. Beltsville, MD-based SCLogic, a software company, responds to these changes in corporate culture by allowing organizations to track accountable items using barcode technology and the Internet as packages move through their facilities. SCLogic software's primary use has been in mailrooms, tracking packages from the dock to the desktop.

Originally when we started doing this seven years ago, it was to provide accountability; now, people use it to manage their mailrooms better,” says Michael Saldi, president, SCLogic, Beltsville, MD. NBC at Rockefeller Center in New York City, for example, has used this technology for several years and can currently tell if a package has gone through all the proper security checks before it reaches its recipient.

Increasingly, large companies are using X-ray machines and bomb- and bio-sniffing devices on mail to increase security. Another trend in some corporations is to move mailroom services off-site completely. These remote sites are high-tech and extremely secure “complete with bomb-safe rooms, biohazard-checking devices, and bomb-sniffing dogs “and allow letters and packages to be checked, tracked, and consolidated. Remote facilities and heightened mailroom security are used by a wide range of large companies across the country, such as pharmaceutical companies, financial institutions, entertainment companies, and tobacco corporations.

The increased focus on mailroom security has brought about unexpected benefits, according to Saldi, including a large increase in labor savings since companies can easily track lost packages. We have clients who get 15,000 items a day and they have full-time people who do nothing but track down exceptions,” says Saldi.

Other benefits that impact the bottom line include a reduction in write-offs from package loss. The receiving door is that big, black hole that things get tossed into, and the mailroom was always blamed for things that got lost,” says Saldi. Receiving departments especially appreciate the ability to track packages and deter theft.

Much has changed two years after that first anthrax letter was opened in Senator Daschle's suite. In honor of the two postal employees who lost their lives, the Brentwood facility was renamed the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing and Distribution Center. Facilities managers nationwide are re-examining how packages and people access their buildings.

While the remediation projects are not the company's focus, Ashland learned an innovative technique and will continue using its expertise to provide overall technical and service solutions to its customers. We have a long history with this chemical and it is a powerful chemical. It is something we have the capability to do, but we hope we never have to do it again,” says Moffat.

Regina Raiford Babcock ( is senior editor at Buildings magazine.


comments powered by Disqus

Sponsored Links