Technologically Speaking has a sobering and important conversation about preparing for chemical and biological contamination. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, the impact of such an event would be staggering. S&T exists, in part, to research and test tools for complex cleanup scenarios that require acting quickly, efficiently and with confidence that hazardous material, like anthrax, is decontaminated. Guest Dr. Don Bansleben, a program manager at S&T specializing in chemical and biological threat detection, talks about the current work S&T is doing with U.S. government partners to prepare for these scenarios.
Guest: Don Bansleben, Program Manager, Office of Mission & Capability Support
Host: John Verrico, Chief of Media & Community Relations
[00:00:00] Verrico: Hi, I'm John Verrico and I work for the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, or S&T as we call it. Join me and meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe. This is Technologically Speaking.
Hello, and welcome to this episode of Technologically Speaking, I'm your host for today, John Verrico and I have with me a very special guest, Dr. Don Bansleben who's a program manager with us here in the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, and specifically for chemical and biological threat detection. Don, welcome.
[00:00:41] Bansleben: Thank you.
[00:00:42] Verrico: Don, over the years, we've worked on some very cool projects together. I mean, you're, I don't wanna say this too loud, cause I don't want you to get a big head, but you are really a genius when it comes to the whole, biological threat detection kind of realm. Let's talk very briefly about just the biological threat in general. I mean, everybody is always worried about biological threats. Like what happens if some biological agent were to be released? And so, can you just talk briefly about the kinds of things that people need to be concerned about?
[00:01:15] Bansleben: So, let me talk first about a chemical agent. Unlike the release of a hazardous chemical material, where very, oftentimes you might see people getting sick very quickly and possibly even dying in front of you. The release of a biological agent is very different in that it takes time for symptoms to show up in someone who has been exposed. And it may be days before they show up at their doctors or in a hospital emergency room with signs that may look like a flu or pneumonia. When, in fact, it's even something worse than that.
[00:01:52] Verrico: What are the concerns that, come into play? Obviously, we want to be able to detect the problem as early as possible, and then there's also, all the follow up at that point, including, cleanup and decontamination and all that kind of stuff. Can you kind of give a quick overview of those efforts?
[00:02:10] Bansleben: Sure. So, as you mentioned, being able to detect of course is extremely important. You then need to figure out, where is that threat?
How much of it is there? What is the threat itself? What is the identity of the threat? And what sorts of actions can you take right away to protect the population such as sheltering in place or evacuation of an area. Then ultimately getting into understanding, the scope of the problem, the scale of the whole problem, and then, launching into the areas of cleanup of the area so that, with time, people can go back to their normal lives.
[00:02:50] Verrico: Don, one of the things that a lot of people think about when they think about the potential for a biological threat or a biological agent being released, we think of it happening within a structure. We don't necessarily think about what happens when something is released in a large outdoor area.
[00:03:07] And so this is where, some of your recent studies have come into play, trying to understand, what really happens there and how widespread the problem then becomes when you're talking a large outdoor area. It's no longer a controlled environment within walls, but you're now talking about a large area that could spread for quite a ways.
[00:03:27] Bansleben: The beginning of this project really started back in 2001 with the anthrax letter events, where, letters were sent to members of Congress and elsewhere containing the agent that causes anthrax. And there was a large mobilization of the government to clean those areas. It's a very deadly agent. And in that process, we learned a lot about how to clean interior spaces so that people can reoccupy them. What we didn't know is if spores from this material made their way outdoors. And that's, an incredibly, bad scenario if you will. The contamination of say an entire community, an entire city think of a large city like New York city, for example, where there may be millions and millions of people living, where there are all kinds of different types of materials that you have to deal with that may be hiding, a deadly biological agent that may have been released. Concrete materials, metal materials grassy areas, foliage, asphalt. It becomes a rather daunting problem that very quickly would overwhelm the local authorities in the community or the city. And that's really where the, uh, job of the federal government comes into really help to understand what the problem is and to rectify it so that people can go back to their normal lives.
[00:05:00] Verrico: Don, I never even thought about that. Trying to clean up, porous versus non-porous services is completely different as compared to also, like you said, in grassy areas and just in the foliage of trees and thinking of all that stuff. It does get kind of daunting. So, what if something terrible happens in a city or a town or a rural area, how do you go about detecting this stuff, figuring out where it is on these different types of materials?
[00:05:25] Bansleben: So, it really is a very difficult problem. For starters being prepared, is really gonna be key to dealing with that sort of a scenario or situation if it ever does develop. We need to know what works. If we're going to be, cleaning something up, what types of technologies can we use to speed up the cleanup? How effective are they? Understanding better ways to take samples of an area so that we understand whether there it's contaminated or not. And, especially after the cleanup has taken place, I'm sure everyone would want to know that it's safe to go back into their own home and into their community and that there's not something lurking out there that's going to harm them or their family. So being prepared I think is the very first step. So doing things, in the laboratory, doing things at a larger scale, we call pilot scale. Doing things at a, an operational scale where we're simulating an event, and exercising the types of technologies that we're developing to understand if what we're doing is working, how well it's working, if it's not working, what else can we do differently? All, again, coming down to being prepared for an event like that, to minimize the impact on people, minimize the impact on the economy, and, just show resilience in general, against threats that really are meant to do us a lot of harm.
[00:06:59] Verrico: Let's talk about this most recent operational field assessment that you just did in a really cool program that you are working on with the Coast Guard called Analysis for Coastal Operational Resiliency or ANCOR. Let's go back on site.
[00:07:14] Bansleben from field assessment: I think this is this project is actually, I, I believe a great example of how federal agencies can work together. So, we have our Component partner, the United States Coast Guard, came to us with this problem of, if we are ever impacted by a biological agent at our bases or with our maritime assets, we're gonna need to continue our mission. We cannot stop what we're doing to protect the public, the waterways, the coastlines. And so that was really the start of this effort. How do we go about cleaning up an outdoor area, a wide area, that may have been contaminated by a biological agent? So, back in 2001, you may remember the anthrax letter incidents that occurred. There was a lot of nervousness in the country about whether there would be additional attacks, and, at that time, EPA had played an extremely important role. They were, they went in to clean up the areas that were impacted all indoors. So, what was has been learned at that time, was if, if there is contamination indoors in a building, they know how to deal with that, how to clean it up. But now we look around and you see there's, you've got all kinds of, um, different materials that you wouldn't find necessarily indoors. Um, and so that, that really is the big challenge here. If this happens on a Coast Guard base, which may be associated with a large urban area, for example, in New York city or, or Baltimore or somewhere else, um, how are we going to recover that area as quickly as possible and the assets of the Coast Guard so that they can continue their mission and people can go back to their lives?
[00:09:15] Verrico: So, let's talk about the operational field assessment that you just completed. And let's kinda get into weeds a little bit. What exactly happened?
[00:09:23] Bansleben: The very first thing John, that we needed to do was really to find a venue, making sure that the venue had the right sorts of attributes, meaning it, it had buildings, it had, roadways, it had sidewalks, it had grassy areas, trees, and so forth. In this case, it was, a really nice area at Fort AP Hill that has a mock city that we're able to work in. Once we had that particular aspect nailed down, the next thing was really to set up for the actual field demonstration itself. So, that meant coming in staging, a lot of equipment, if you will, that would be used as part of the demonstration itself. And we had, I think over a hundred participants in the actual demonstration itself. So, we had a large contingent from the EPA. We had, members from the United States Coast Guard, national Strike Force teams participating, and we had a lot of observers also. So, it was very much a team effort here. We set up distinct areas where teams would be able to collect their PPE, put their PPE on so that they could go out into the areas where we had placed the simulant for baccilus anthraces.
[00:10:46] Bansleben: I'm talking about, Basilus Ansis spores, those are the spores that cause the disease of anthrax. We use anthrax, as a stimulant because anthrax can live in the environment for decades. It basically hibernates if you will, and can hibernate in the soil, but if it finds the right conditions where it can come back to life, in the body, for example, the body can support the spores, multiplying, and suddenly you are inflicted with a very deadly disease. A virus is much easier to kill a spore is again, because it has a protective coating is much more difficult to kill. A spore is, it's basically the organism itself and it has a protective shell around it to protect it from the environment and when it gets the nutrients that it needs to begin to multiply, that's how the process works and it can overwhelm the body with, as it keeps multiplying and taking over cellular functions in the body that can cause grave harm to a person.
[00:11:52] Bansleben: Our other partner in this project is the, us Environmental Protection Agency, and the EPA is extremely important to this whole effort in that if we ever are faced with an event like this, it, it is the EPA who really is gonna come in and manage the cleanup. So, we have partnered here then with the Coast Guard and the EPA, and we have developed this demonstration project, which builds on a lot of work that has been done at the laboratory level at the pilot scale. We are simulating the release of a biological material, and then stepping through all the processes that must be done to understand where the contamination is, how much of it is there, and looking at different technologies in an operational setting, which is outdoors, where there are areas of grass, there's trees, there, there are buildings made…
[00:12:54] Verrico: Yeah.
[00:12:55] Bansleben: of concrete there's buildings made of wood, there's asphalt.
[00:12:58] Verrico: So, how do you simulate a biological hazard in an environment like that?
[00:13:03] Bansleben: It's absolutely forbidden to release an actual biological agent that just will never happen in this country. It should not happen anywhere.
[00:13:12] Verrico: Probably a good idea.
[00:13:14] Bansleben: Yeah. So, fortunately there are, materials that are related to the actual threat itself, but they're not hazardous. They're actually used commercially, for various products or things. But it, they are not hazardous to, to people. So, we try to work with substances like that to simulate the actual threat that may have properties of the threat itself, such as the size of the particle, the shape of the particle and things like that to make it as realistic as possible.
[00:13:47] Verrico: I think I remember for another field test that was done, but I seem to remember the local health official, assuring the public by saying it's like throwing yogurt in the air, but less messy.
[00:13:59] Bansleben: I think that's the perfect description of it. It's a type of material that you would find in products, but, um, is definitely not hazardous to, to people.
[00:14:08] Verrico: So, when you were setting this operational field assessment, working on the ANCOR project. What was the biggest challenge that you faced trying to get this going?
[00:14:17] Bansleben: So, I think the biggest challenge really was to really try to get our hands around the scope of the problem in terms of what are we going to be dealing with here? And we've already talked about this a little, but it's very different than dealing with something that's inside a nice clean office building or in your own home. As mentioned, there are lots of different materials outdoors, you're dealing with the weather conditions and so forth. So, it's a rather daunting problem. The scale of it, is it would be incredible. So, we need to be able to do things very much in, in a practical way so that we're not inventing things that may be used one time, but taking advantage of things that are already out there in the commercial world and repurposing them, if you will, to help us in the cleanup of a problem like this and return again, an area to, to normal life.
[00:15:19] Verrico: So, when you say taking things from the commercial world, what kinds of things are we talking about?
[00:15:24] Bansleben: EPA only has so much equipment, in their inventory, and yet there's a lot of equipment that's used commercially for other reasons that can be repurposed to do the types of things that need to be done in order to reduce the hazard and make the place safe again like repurposing agricultural spray equipment. So, we've all seen in farm fields, large sprayers where they're spraying insecticides or agricultural chemicals or trees being sprayed for gypsy moths. Those types of equipment can definitely be used for the types of problems that we're dealing with here. And then you have alternate materials that can be utilized. And the example is, a pool chemical rather than, another type of a chlorine containing chemical that is harder to get, but a pool chemical that is readily available that produces the same active ingredient that can kill a spore.
[00:16:25] Verrico: Now you've got, a bunch of, I guess you can call it contaminated waste. What happens with that, too? And I know that's all been part of the study as well. It's like, not only do you have to worry about killing the biological material, and decontaminating it, but now you also have to get rid of that waste.
[00:16:43] Bansleben: What you just mentioned about the waste itself is probably going to amaze people in general. The amount of waste that would be generated in trying to clean up a large area, like a community or a large urban area. So, there's going to be materials that just really cannot be decontaminated because, it's, it just, it's not practical or economical to do that. When we think of it in the grand scheme of things, the amount of waste is gonna be in tens of millions of tons, if not even greater than that. And that alone presents a challenge because, you cannot bury it, simply go out and put it in a landfill. It contains a hazardous biological substance. So, you have to show that you've killed that substance before a landfill would even entertain the possibility of taking it and, burying it in the landfill itself. We've also learned that the management of the waste turns out to be actually the most expensive part of a cleanup operation. You have, you know, a lot of expenses for the decontamination itself and sampling of, the deadly agent, the bug itself. But then you have this enormous amount of waste that you've gotta decontaminate before anybody takes it, and then you've gotta transport it. And it's, it just becomes in incredibly expensive. You can't leave it out on the street the, the local trash company to pick up. So, it's really on the shoulders of the U.S. government to make sure that material is safe to, get rid of as, just normal waste.
[00:18:22] Verrico: In particular, what came out of this, operational field assessment that you just did? Uh, down at, at Fort AP Hill.
[00:18:29] Bansleben: We had a couple of inventions that were made as part of this whole process. One of them relates to going out and taking samples, of an area, that you can take that sample back to the laboratory and determine if there's something hazardous there. And the normal process to do that is essentially taking a sample from a one-foot by one-foot square area. So, when you think about that, if you wanted to do that in a large area, like a city, you can imagine how many samples you would be taking. You would be out there forever taking samples.
[00:19:05] Verrico: Just collecting, yeah.
[00:19:07] Bansleben: You would be analyzing tens of thousands, millions of samples. So, one of the inventions that was made here was development of a machine, which very much looks like a Zamboni machine that's used to clean the ice in ice rinks. That is really a glorified leaf blower and vacuum cleaner all in one. It's something that allows us to take samples over a much larger area, which taking down the costs of an operation like that and getting information a lot more quickly from the laboratory as to whether or not you, you need to worry about cleaning up that whole area.
[00:19:44] Verrico: Was this the first time you had an opportunity to see this technology?
[00:19:47] Bansleben: Some of the things, that we have done in this project is really focusing on different areas of the outdoors that, you would want to reduce the hazard, that may be present there. An example of that is foliage, trees and plants, and so forth where we tried some things out, some, some methods to kill the spores. So, one of the other things that, I think we should be really proud of here, is some real advances that, have been made in terms of the sampling itself. So again, going back to the number of samples that might have to be taken up to millions of them in a very large area, it becomes an incredibly difficult process to manage all of the data that you're gathering, the actual taking of the samples, where you took that sample, what the conditions were, what type of sample it was, what process you used to take that sample. So, the EPA came up with a really clever technique where they have combined a very small and very inexpensive, GPS type of device, on the top of, uh, pole, if you will, that can be carried around by people, dressed up appropriately in their PPE. And it also has a, a small, tablet computer, so that, you know exactly if you're told by your team that I want you to go here and take a sample right here, the GPS guides you exactly to where you're being told to take that sample.
[00:21:22] Bansleben: And then you have ways to document that sample without entering all kinds of information manually. So, it's an automated process. It makes the job of people who are in PPE and, are really probably sweating a lot from being in that type of, protective equipment for long periods of time. It really improves the process incredibly and cuts down on errors that might be made.
[00:21:48] Verrico: Wow. Don, so what would you say were the most important findings that came out of the ANCOR project?
[00:21:56] Bansleben: So, we're still in the process of, really analyzing all the data that has been collected, especially at the recent Fort AP Hill demonstration. But, some of the important findings are that I think we know very well how to decontaminate a Coast Guard patrol boat, if it is, contaminated by something like baccilus anthraces. That's incredibly important because these boats are really the workhorse of the Coast Guard fleet. We have learned that it's possible to clean up something, at the scale that it's going to need to be done. It's nice to know that there's equipment out there that can be gotten very quickly to do this job, as well as I think the overall finding that I think we have a pretty good sense of knowing what works to clean up different types of materials and what doesn't work. And that cuts down on a trial and error when you're actually in the heat of an event.
[00:22:56] Verrico: I think the American public would be really happy to know how far ahead of the game that we really are in understanding these threats and what it takes combat them and to be able to get on top of them early on in the process. So, I really have to ask, how did you get into this line of work? And how do you feel being able to contribute to public safety like this?
[00:23:21] Bansleben: I think this for me was really, um, my motivation in getting into this line of work really, I think, came about after the horrific events of 9/11. Where this country was attacked by terrorists using our own technology against us. And, I was in federal service at that time, but with a different agency. And I think there was just a calling for me, if you will, that I wanted to do something that I felt would be even more impactful for helping to protect this country, helping to protect my own family, helping to protect my neighbors and so forth. It utilizes my background in chemistry and materials and so forth.
[00:24:06] Verrico: I have to ask this. Were you a nerdy kid?
[00:24:09] Bansleben: You know, it's, I probably was quite nerdy. Maybe at the time, I didn't think so, but, yeah, I was nerdy. I mean, you know, I, I was intrigued, especially by, um, the, space program at the time. I wanted to be an astronaut at one time early in my young days.
[00:24:26] Verrico: think we all did. I think we're in similar age group. Just looking at the possibilities of science and I think, I know that drew me, into being attracted to the science fields as well. When you were coming up and you decided to pursue a career in chemistry, what was that like? What got you really going there?
[00:24:49] Bansleben: I had a chemistry set when I was a young kid. When I got into high school and had my first chemistry course, for some reason I just really became, enthralled, I guess, with the field of chemistry itself. So, that kind of led me down that path, as I got into college and decided, yeah, this is something I want to try and do, to become more of an expert and work in this field.
[00:25:15] Verrico: What was it specifically about chemistry of all the sciences? Just outta curiosity.
[00:25:19] Bansleben: Making things or making observations of particular things. I was kind of intrigued by just understanding how you put one atom together with a different atom and you make something that can be entirely useful to someone else.
[00:25:36] Verrico: So, that passion that exudes from you about this, taking one atom and combining it with an atom of something completely different and creating something, not only something new and different, but something specifically that can be helpful to someone else. And that tells us so much about who Don Bansleben really is.
[00:25:57] Bansleben: I think for me, it's important to realize that we have, such an amazing life these days because of what people are doing in science and technology. When you look around, just look at what you can do with your cell phone today, for example, I encourage people that have that curiosity to really stick with it. We need more and more people to enter the sciences. And, I would hope that, in our educational systems today, that more attention is paid to really training the scientists of the future, so that we can continue to maintain our edge in that area, and really make life easier and better for everyone.
[00:26:39] Verrico: Don thank you again so much. That's Dr. Donald Bansleben who is a program manager here in the Department of Homeland, Security's Science and Technology Directorate. Don, thank you for joining us today and for sharing your story and telling us about ANCOR. And with that, I want to thank our listeners for listening to this episode of Technologically Speaking.
This has been Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S&T and find additional information about what you heard in this episode, visit us online at scitech.dhs.gov and follow us on social media at DHS SciTech. Thanks for listening.