Talk of Biotoxins Raises Concerns in Pasadena

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 21 Feb 2007
Time: 04:14:35
Remote Name:


Talk of Biotoxins Raises Concerns in Pasadena

By Elise Kleeman Staff Writer

PASADENA - The city's Health Department issued an announcement last weekend, a curious statement alerting the public to something it then said merited no concern.

"On Saturday, Feb. 10, routine environmental sampling detected traces of a bacteria that can cause tularemia, an infectious disease, at a testing site in Pasadena," stated the release. "At this time, we do not believe that there is any threat to public health. Individuals do not need to modify their activities as a result of this occurrence," it quoted Los Angeles County Public Health Director Jonathan Fielding as saying.

All other details were vague. The purpose of the testing was never mentioned. The location at which tularemia was found was never given.

The press release made the event seem like a quiet blip on the city's air-testing radar.

Although who knew there was someone testing the air for biotoxins?

As it turns out, the find was part of the Department of Homeland Security's rather quiet bioweapons alert program, and attracted the attention and concern of local, state and national government officials.

The program, called BioWatch, tests the air of major urban areas daily for "aerosolized biological agents

of interest," said Chris Kelly, associate director of strategic communications for the Department of Homeland Security.

Now going on its fourth year, it has collected about 3 million results from around the nation. Last weekend's tularemia alert is only the 17th positive result any of the sensors have detected, Kelly said.

As with the Pasadena incident, health officials determined the other alerts were from natural sources, he said. All have involved traces of the bacteria that cause tularemia or another disease, brucellosis.

The two bacteria are among the six biological weapons that the program tests for, Kelly said. "One agent is something we'd never expect to see in an environmental area. The rest are all naturally occurring in parts of the country," he added.

Further details about which they were or where the sensors are located remain secret.

"It's just very important to be able to conduct our work on agents that are known and that are out there, but getting into the specifics ... sort of might compromise our defense systems," Kelly said.

When positive results turned up in Pasadena on Feb. 10, health officials were fairly confident from the start that terrorists were not to blame.

The tularemia bacteria, Francisella tularensis, appeared only in small quantities and is naturally found in small and medium-size animals, including rodents, rabbits and hares.

Still, the find set into motion a pre-arranged protocol involving a wide range of partners, said Takashi Wada, Pasadena's public health officer.

Local police, fire departments and hospitals went on the lookout for possible human cases of tularemia, which is not contagious but has a high mortality rate.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services was summoned to conduct necessary extra testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Federal Bureau of Investigation were also asked to determine the threat posed by the disease and if someone might have placed it there.

But by later that night, as expected, the second round of air tests returned negative.

"We didn't think that it was anything serious, but we had to make sure,"

Wada said. "We did have to run through our protocol and it did have to take a lot of work and a lot of staff time. \ it's nice, when you actually have an incident, to know that all of it worked for us."


Last changed: February 21, 2007