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Chemical-terrorism preparedness--Public Health Laboratories found "Unprepared and Overwhelmed".

A report released by Trust for America's Health (TFAH) finds that, despite warnings by homeland security officials that a chemical terrorist attack in the United States is a real possibility, state public health laboratories--a crucial component of the defense and response system--are dangerously unprepared to meet this challenge.

The report "Public Health Laboratories: Unprepared and Overwhelmed" examines the capabilities of the nation's state and local public health laboratories.

"Public health labs are responsible for identifying the chemical weapon used in an assault, which then drives the critical treatment, containment, and cleanup decisions," said Shelley A. Hearne, Dr. P.H., executive director of TFAH. "Nearly two years after being overwhelmed during the anthrax attacks, labs still haven't received the real investment needed to fix many of their deficiencies."

The report has two parts:

1. a survey of state public health laboratory directors about their ability to respond to a hypothetical chemical weapon attack and

2. an evaluation of state laboratories' preparedness to respond to emergencies involving three industrial chemicals that could potentially be used as chemical terror agents.

The report identified the following gaps in preparedness among public health laboratories:

* lack of clear direction and formal coordination among emergency responders;

* lack of planning, protocols, and additional support needed in the event of emergencies;

* lack of equipment and training required to safely handle and store samples of suspected biological or chemical agents;

* lack of security and safeguards against exposure for laboratory personnel and emergency responders;

* limited environmental testing capacity for chemical agents; and

* minimal ability to test the public for exposure to chemicals, including common industrial chemicals such as phosgene, a choking agent regularly used in pharmaceuticals, metal welding and dye manufacturing, and arsine, a blood agent used in the manufacturing of computer chips and fiber optics.

"If we have to respond to a chemical terrorism event, it will be a train wreck," said Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. "Only eight state public health laboratories have a chemical terrorism response plan in place. We don't have a national plan, or testing methods, or a lead agency for many of the laboratory activities that will be needed when a crisis occurs."

TFAH recommends a serious modernization effort aimed at making public health laboratories state-of-the-art for the 21st century. Communications, staffing, equipment, and facilities would need to be upgraded, and a real commitment would have to be made to increase and stabilize support at both the state and federal levels.

The report was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It is available on TFAH's Web site, at www.healthyamericans.org.
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Title Annotation:EH Update
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:436
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