According to recent news releases, the US Department of Homeland Security recently conducted a massive experiment to determine whether New York City’s subway system could be used for bioterrorism. Just another reason why a well-to-do New Yorker might invest in an electric car instead of riding the subway.

prepee“New York is the largest subway system in the US and one of the largest in the world. They have over 5.5 million people on average on weekdays. It’s an enormous system, very complex, and it’s high on the target list of our adversaries,” explained the research project’s lead scientist Don Bansleben, program manager at the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. According to Bansleben, the trains within the subway tunnels act as pistons move through a gun.

“They push material in front of themselves and pull material outdoors behind them. The material basically goes everywhere. And during rush hours there are 4,000 subway cars in the system.”

The status of New York City’s subway system makes it a clear target for bioterrorism and a public place where the stakes are high in terms of protecting the general public from terrorist acts.

For the test conducted by the DHS, 115 people from the DHS and partner agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency and seven American labs from around the country set up camp at 55 train stations spanning from Queens to Brooklyn to New Jersey and within 10 different trains. The teams then used air compressors to shoot one gram of a harmless analogue of anthrax into the air for 20 minutes while the subway continued its normal business. The test constituted the first study to be conducted on a large-scale and focused on particles as potential bioweapons.

The anthrax analogue, called DNATrax, is more commonly used by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track food poisoning outbreaks. For this particular experiment, the DHS made two sets of particles 2 microns and 5 microns in size. Each particle was attached to short chains of DNA that helped them to be distinguished.

air samplerOn each of the five days of the experiment, the research team released different barcodes into the subway system. This helped researchers to better understand how air moves on different kinds of days.

“It also tells you about resuspension of the material,” explained Bansleban. “A big concern is that the particles might deposit, but something may cause the material to come back up into the air.”

Once the analogue was released, a variety of sampling instruments were used to track their movement through the subway. “We wanted to get a sense of how much people are being exposed,” Bansleben said. He said the team wants to better understand how particles can attach to bodies “where people who may have walked into a cloud of something don’t know it, and then go out of the subway, go home, and potentially expose their family.”

The DHS and its research teams collected 12,000 samples in total after the tests were conducted. Those samples are to be sent to national labs, where analysis of the information is pending. In a few months, we may better understand how bioterrorism would work in the  NYC subway system.

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