Defending against chemical, biological weapons

At the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Grounds facility in the Utah desert, researchers look for ways to protect soldiers against "bugs" that could easily kill or sideline them.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

Several masks that have been evaluated for safety against various chemical 'agents' sit on a table at the Dugway Proving Ground. CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman visited the facility as part of his Road Trip 2009 project. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

DUGWAY, Utah--In a world where American soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq might find themselves under attack from chemical or biological weapons, who's looking out for their safety?

The answer lies deep in the western Utah desert, at a U.S. Army facility called the Dugway Proving Ground where, among other things, groups of scientists are researching how to defend against a wide variety of potentially lethal, or at least dangerous, "agents."

"Dugway's primary mission is testing United States and Allied chemical and biological (CB) defense systems and also performing nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) contamination survivability testing of defense materiel," a fact sheet about Dugway reads. "With more than 50 years of experience, (Dugway) uses its state-of-the-art laboratories and chambers in concert with extensive field test grids to fully determine the performance characteristics of items being tested."

I visited Dugway this week as part of Road Trip 2009, and was given a tour and an explanation of both the facility's Chemical Test and Life Sciences divisions.

Photos: How the Army tests biological and chemical weapons

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Notwithstanding the official explanation from the fact sheet, as Raven Reitstetter, the acting division chief of the Chemical Test Division put it to me, Dugway's primary mission is to test protective equipment against chemical and biological agents. Everyone I talked to made the point that while some such agents are stored at Dugway--generally for no longer than 90 days--the purpose of the facility is strictly defensive. In fact, Dugway is not even authorized to produce chemicals.

And while there are certainly dangerous chemicals on hand at any given time, a series of safety systems, including multiple air filters, are designed, I was told, to make the air that leaves the Chemical Test Division cleaner than the air that goes in.

Of course, given the reality that there are actual dangerous chemicals being used in the facility, the division runs monthly safety and response drills so that if there ever is an accident, everyone involved is supposed to know what to do.

Two different kinds of labs
Within the Chemical division, there are two different kinds of labs. The first is for engineering systems to evaluate protective equipment, such as respirators and uniforms. The second is for analyzing the properties of various chemicals.

I was taken into one of the protective equipment labs and shown a system in which mannequins wearing special masks are hooked up to artificial lungs and subjected to various kinds of chemical agents. The question that is trying to be answered is when does the agent break through the protection. And the idea is to test the kinds of soldiers' outfits that are as close as possible to what they would have in an actual operational environment so that any analysis has real-world significance.

"We're in constant development for improving (the equipment) and making it closer to the physiological conditions of humans wearing this type of equipment," Reitstetter said.

Similarly, another of this type of lab is set up to examine how various kinds of protective clothing hold up to different chemicals. The scientists will take small swatches of clothing material, contaminate them inside a special "cup" and see whether the chemical breaks through. And as before, the conditions are meant to be as real-world as possible, so the scientists play around with different temperatures and relative humidity combinations to see how they affect the efficacy of the swatches.

The second type of lab is for analyzing chemicals. Using gas chromatographs (GC) that can detect the presence of even single digit parts per billion of chemical agents, the GC machines are designed to, among other things, separate simulants that mimic chemical agents based on their physical and chemical properties. The idea here is to learn the signatures of individual chemicals so that those in the field can learn to look for and detect them, and know how to neutralize them.

Ultimately, the point of the labs is to be able to give soldiers an affirmative answer to their most basic query about potential chemical attacks: will they be protected?

After finishing up at the Chemical Test Division, I was taken to another part of the huge Dugway grounds. Here, I met Angelo Madonna, Dugway's Biotechnology branch chief.

Madonna and Lynnette Davila, a biosurety assistant, showed me around Dugway's Life Sciences Division, where scientists do similar work as the folks in the Chemical Test Division, except on biological agents.

The logo of the Critical Reagents Program, under which the Army is attempting to create standards for testing various biological materials. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Within the Life Sciences Division, there are four branches: Aerosol technology, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) training, compliance and methodology and biological testing and antigen production, and each has a specific purpose.

The Aerosol technology branch is responsible for all field work and field tests. The WMD training branch is designed to give first responders, like firefighters, paramedics, police and others, training on the basics of dealing with "bugs," or biological agents. The compliance and methodology branch is meant to ensure that Dugway is following the kinds of new regulations for dealing with dangerous agents that have been in place since 2005. And, lastly, the biological testing and antigen production branch is responsible for the lab testing of such agents.

Again, the point was made to me that the purpose of the facility was strictly defensive. While the Life Sciences Division goes grow some kinds of agents for testing purposes, they're defensive, I was assured.

And as with the Chemical Test Division, Madonna and his colleagues are responsible for testing protective equipment and detectors and for decontamination when there's exposure to dangerous agents.

Davila explained that the facility was set up to deal with three levels of biological agents. Biological Safety Level 1 (BSL1) equates to the kinds of normal situations one might find anywhere. BSL2 is more serious, and agents in this category might make someone sick, but there's nearly 100 percent likelihood of their recovery, if treated. But BSL3 agents are the really scary ones, the ones that can easily kill someone or make them very sick. Still, most BSL3 agents are treatable.

However, BSL4 agents are pretty much deadly to anyone exposed to them, and as a result, even the facilities at Dugway are not generally authorized to work with them. If such an agent was discovered somewhere in the West, it might be brought to Dugway, but in general, the government would want any such agent to be taken to specific facilities geared for them.

Well within the building was what is known as the bioholding room. Here, the Life Sciences Division keeps its "reference stock," everything that comes out of the lab. But as a safety measure, everything that goes in the bioholding room is tracked "cradle to grave," Madonna explained. The lab keeps codes for everything and that code follows each sample or specimen everywhere it goes.

The idea is so that anyone who needs to can account for every bit of every biological agent that comes into or is made in the building.

One of the important tasks of the Life Sciences Division is to generate non-pathogenic simulants that various military or civilian field directors need for their testing projects. Madonna said the lab produces what they need, "to their specs."

Ultimately, Madonna and his colleagues are responsible for passing the data onto what is known as the Army Evaluation Center, where they are then passed onto decision makers higher up the chain of command who determine policy based on the information they're given.

Practicing for when terrorists strike
Before I left Dugway, I was taken even further out into the vast desert to Mustang Village, a tiny mock town set up for military and civilian outfits to practice their response to terrorist attacks.

In the village are several buildings including a small hotel, an even smaller post office, and a store, all of which can be used to practice one eventuality or another. In the hotel, for example, scenario training is given on recognizing bomb or chemical or biological agent production labs and distinguishing between them and, say, a meth lab, which, while illegal, isn't all that dangerous.

Departing Dugway, I was left evermore with the impression that a lot of bad things can happen in the world these days, and that a lot of people feel deeply committed to the task of stopping those things from happening, or at least getting ready for them in case of disaster.

Yet, we know that disaster does, indeed, become reality. September 11, Hurricane Katrina, fires in Southern California and, of course, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have put tremendous numbers of Americans in harm's way, not to mention those from other countries.

The Army, then, wants its own people, and the public at large, to feel some comfort in the idea that it has put a group of seasoned professionals in charge of coming up with the data that the country's policymakers can use to guard our soldiers in the field and our civilians at home and abroad against the effects of non-conventional attacks.

For the next several weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be writing about and photographing the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Colorado. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.