- ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (ENS) - A sudsy foam created from ordinary substances
found in common household products could be a first line of defense against
a terrorist release of chemical or biological warfare agents. The single
decontaminant is effective against all chemical and biological agents.
- Researchers at the Department of Energy's
Sandia National Laboratories have created a foam that begins neutralizing
both chemical and biological agents in minutes. Because it is not harmful
to people, it could be dispensed on the disaster scene immediately, even
before casualties are evacuated.
- Foam developer Maher Tadros test sprays
his creation. (Photos courtesy Sandia National Laboratory) "Whatever
you do, it's best to act very quickly," says co-developer Maher Tadros
of Sandia. "This foam can start neutralizing an agent or combinations
of agents right away, even before you know what you're dealing with."
- In laboratory tests at Sandia the foam
destroyed simulants of the most worrisome chemical agents (VX, mustard,
and soman) and killed a simulant of anthrax, the toughest known biological
agent. Against the anthrax simulant, after one hour only one anthrax spore
out of 10 million was still alive.
- The U.S. has a number of strategies to
deter a chemical or biological attack from ever occurring in this country,
says Greg Thomas, Sandia program manager for chem-bio nonproliferation.
"But if we are attacked," he says, "we'll need to have the
tools available to respond."
- Sandia has discussed deploying the foam
with various military organizations, police departments, subway systems,
national laboratories, and an international airport.
- Like a fire retardant, the foam could
be sprayed from handheld canisters. It also works as a fire retardant.
For open areas, airports could have trucks to dispense foams over runways.
- Ideally, tanks of the foam could be incorporated
into the fire sprinkler systems of high-profile government buildings or
other potential targets - embassies, congressional buildings, the White
House, subways, and the New York Stock Exchange, for instance.
- International law prohibits the Sandia
researchers from possessing real chemical or biological agents, but they
have taken samples of the foam to the Illinois Institute of Technology
in Chicago where the foam was tested against actual VX, mustard gas, and
- In those tests the foam neutralized half
the remaining chemical agent molecules every two to 10 minutes, depending
on the agent. For most chemical agents the contamination remaining after
one hour of exposure to the foam is insignificant.
- The foam neutralizes viral particles
in minutes, as well. "It has performed superbly for all the agents
we have tested it against," Tadros says.
- Researcher Mark Tucker compares petri
dishes in his Sandia lab. More tests planned for April will pit the foam
against real anthrax and other bacterial spores.
- "If you can kill spores, you can
kill germinating bacteria and you can deactivate viruses," says foam
co-developer Mark Tucker of Sandia. "Spores are the most difficult."
- The foam neutralizes chemical agents
in much the same way a detergent lifts an oily spot from a stained shirt.
Its surfactants, like those in hair conditioner, and mild oxidizing substances,
like those in toothpaste, begin to chemically digest the chemical agent,
seeking out the phosphate or sulfide bonds holding the molecules together
and chopping the molecules into nontoxic pieces.
- How the foam kills bacterial spores still
is not well understood, says Tucker adds. The researchers suspect the surfactants
poke holes in the spore's protein armor, allowing the oxidizing agents
to attack the genetic material inside.
- Research papers on the work have been
presented at various technical gatherings of the chem-bio defense community,
most recently at the National Research Council Workshop on Chem-bio Warfare
Physical Protection and Decontamination in Washington, D.C., January 25
- Sandia has filed for a patent on the
substance, tentatively called Decon Foam 100.
- Currently available sprays, fogs, or
other decontaminating products typically are based on bleach, chlorinated
solvents, or other hazardous or corrosive materials, Tadros says. And many
new and emerging decontaminants are designed to work against only a limited
number of either chemical or biological agents.
- They also are expensive, he says. A new
nerve-agent decontaminant made in Germany, for example, costs about $150
a pound. The Sandia foam, in comparison, could be produced for about 15
cents a pound, Tadros estimates.
- The U.S. Department of Energy is funding
development of the foam as part of its larger Chemical and Biological Nonproliferation
Program. The program, initiated through the Weapons of Mass Destruction
Act of 1996, seeks to develop intelligence capabilities, sensors, and other
technologies that allow the U.S. to detect, deter, and respond to terrorist
attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.