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Center News

Feds Would Face Problems in a Bio Attack Clean-Up: Analysis Reveals Progress but Some Gaps Remain

APRIL 9, 2010 – Baltimore, MD – Following the 2001 anthrax attacks, the government and private sector undertook the task of cleaning up anthrax-contaminated facilities – a job that had never before been attempted on that scale. Decontaminating congressional office buildings, postal facilities, and media buildings cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and some of the facilities could not be reopened for more than 2 years.

Nine years later, what progress have we made in policy and practice that would make decontamination easier in the event of another attack?  A recent assessment, sponsored by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism ( and appearing in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, found that the process of environmental decontamination would still be very difficult and costly and that the lines of responsibility at the federal level are still unclear.

The 2001 anthrax attack is considered to be a small attack, because relatively few facilities were involved and anthrax contamination was limited to indoor environments. But a large-scale biological release could potentially result in hundreds of thousands of illnesses and deaths and could cost trillions of dollars to clean up. An attack on a U.S. city could contaminate both indoor and outdoor areas, including buildings, street, parks, and vehicles.

Researchers from the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC looked at current decontamination policy and technical practices at the federal level to determine what gaps exist that might hamper response to a future large-scale attack with a biological agent. The government agencies with primary responsibility for decontamination are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Defense (DoD). Federal roles and responsibilities for decontamination research and response are not clearly spelled out, overlap, and are often underfunded..

The article also describes some of the technical and scientific issues that remain unresolved: After an anthrax release, what is the risk of secondary aerosolization? What is the federal standard for decontamination – or, how clean is clean? How clean is safe?

The authors note that there are too few personnel trained in decontamination among all of the agencies and including private contractors. In the event of an attack, private building owners and government agencies would likely be calling on the same limited pool of experts and contractors to help with remediation.

Among the recommendations the authors propose:

  • DHS should clarify federal roles and responsibilities.
  • Congress should increase funding for decontamination research.
  • In addition to research, additional investment in personnel is needed.

“Environmental Decontamination Following a Large-Scale Bioterrorism Attack: Federal Progress and Remaining Gaps” by Crystal Franco and Nidhi Bouri appears ahead of the June 2010 print issue of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism. The full text is available at


Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, a quarterly peer-reviewed journal, is published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. It provides an international forum for debate and exploration of the many key strategic, scientific, and operational issues posed by biological weapons and bioterrorism.

The Center for Biosecurity is an independent, nonprofit organization of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) whose mission is to strengthen national security by reducing the risks posed by biological attacks, epidemics, and other destabilizing events, and to improve the nation’s resilience in the face of such events.



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