"This experiment confirmed that a biological attack could be detected earlier using air sampling which means public health would have more time to respond," said Alexander Garza, an associate professor of epidemiology at Saint Louis University's college for public health and social justice in US.

The researchers reviewed data from a series of experiments simulating a bioterrorism attack against the Pentagon. In 2005 and 2009, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA), in order to simulate a deliberate attack, staged the release of a harmless bacteria that is biological similar to Bacillus anthracis - the bacteria that causes the disease anthrax.

They then evaluated the local response procedures to such an attack. In conjunction with this exercise, the Department of Homeland Security ran its own experiments to test the efficacy of an air and surface sampling system known as BioWatch in detecting these biological agents in the environment.

In the experiments, multiple quantity of benign material was released that included a small portion of the anthrax stimulant. The team collected samples of the air through several portable sampling units and had them analyzed at specialized laboratories.

"We were able to detect the biological organisms released several kilometers from where the agent was originally released," Garza said.

"All of the modeling that had been done to date showed that air samplers should be able to detect these types of attack, what was missing was empirical evidence showing that these systems would work in real world conditions. We now have that evidence," Garza said.

Air sampling has been readily accepted for similar uses such as measuring for particulate matter, however, using it to detect bacteria in biological terrorism was a new concept instituted after the 9/11 attacks.

This type of sampling is now part of a sophisticated system used by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defence in US.

The study appeared in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism.


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