Common Sudsy Foam Cancels
Bio And Chemical Weapons
In Moments
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 soman.
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 to 26.
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.