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News (Media Awareness Project) - US AR: Poised to Thwart Bioterrorism, Labs Find Temp Jobs
Title:US AR: Poised to Thwart Bioterrorism, Labs Find Temp Jobs
Published On:2012-01-29
Source:Los Angeles Times (CA)
Fetched On:2012-01-30 06:01:56

With Millions in Federal Funding, One Goes on the Trail of Synthetic Marijuana.

Reporting from Little Rock, Ark.- When Jeffery H. Moran goes to work
each day, he swipes his security badge, passes into an airtight
chamber, opens a bombproof door and enters a lab full of deadly toxins.

As chief of the counter-terrorism laboratory at the Arkansas
Department of Health - one of 62 such federally funded labs in the
country - he heads two dozen chemists who are on constant alert for
the release of pestilence or poisons in the United States.

Armed with $2 million worth of new equipment, Moran concocts gruesome
tests to keep his team sharp. He has laced samples of baby formula
with lethal ricin. Poured rat poison into water bottles. Tainted
blood with cyanide gas.

None of those are based on real plots, thankfully. So he's added a
new task - helping police in half a dozen states identify "Spice," a
chemical substance that produces a marijuana-like high and has sent
hundreds of users to emergency rooms.

"It's an unknown chemical," Moran said. "That's exactly what we would
have to deal with in a terrorist attack."

Using a counter-terrorism lab to test for synthetic marijuana is the
latest sign of how a multibillion-dollar national infrastructure
built to detect or respond to chemical or biological attacks over the
last decade has adapted to the lack of any actual attacks.

Stewart Baker, former head of policy at the Department of Homeland
Security, said he wasn't surprised that Little Rock's high-tech lab
is helping police ferret out potheads.

"Otherwise they would be like the Maytag repairman, just sitting
there waiting for the phone to ring," Baker said.

Congress has given more than $5 billion to states and territories
since 2001 to prepare public health facilities, laboratories and
first responders for a chemical or biological attack. About $600
million is still issued in grants each year, including $7 million to Arkansas.

The impetus came shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, when letters
laced with anthrax powder killed five people and sparked widespread
fear of bioterrorism. The FBI later concluded that a scientist at an
Army research facility in Maryland, not an Al Qaeda operative, was responsible.

U.S. authorities have foiled or prevented several dozen bomb plots
and other threats over the last decade, but none involved chemical or
biological substances. Authorities also respond to hundreds of false
alarms and hoaxes each year, usually involving suspicious white
powder, but none have involved dangerous pathogens.

Ali S. Khan, an assistant surgeon general at the Centers for Disease
Control in Atlanta, said the huge investment has helped build a far
more robust public health network than there was a decade ago. And
it's only common sense to keep the counter-terrorism labs busy, he added.

"What we've learned over time is that if you respond to routine
threats, then you can respond to a really large threat," he said.

Oregon recently used federal bioterrorism funds to build a
$35-million public health laboratory in Portland, for example. The
facility is now considered a national leader in testing foods for E.
coli and salmonella bacteria, which can cause sickness and death.

In California, the Humboldt County Public Health laboratory spent
federal bioterrorism funds to buy a DNA-sequencing machine. The lab
began using the device this month to test for bacteria in oysters
harvested off the state's coastline.

"We don't just purchase the equipment and it sits in the corner,"
said Jeremy Corrigan, who manages the lab and is state bioterrorism
coordinator for Northern California. "I use it for dual purposes."

Scott Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Assn. of Public
Health Laboratories, said the federal support that flows to state
public health labs "is a lifeline."

But critics say the bonanza of federal spending has added little
tangible benefit to national security.

"Pork, pork, pork, pork, pork," said Edward Hammond, a Texas-based
researcher who studies how federal anti-terrorism funds are spent.
"These state departments of health have become addicted to extra
federal bioterrorism dollars."

No one denies that Spice is a public health problem.

Last year, people who smoked Spice or other fake pot variations made
6,955 calls to poison control centers across the country, more than
twice the number of calls in 2010, according to the nonprofit
American Assn. of Poison Control Centers.

Arkansas officials turned to Moran's team two years ago after a wave
of teens began appearing in hospitals suffering from seizures,
hallucinations and vomiting. They had smoked packets of herbs bought
in local shops under names like Head Trip, Purple Haze and Mad Hatter.

The herbs had been sprayed with chemicals that affect the brain in
ways similar to tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive
compound in marijuana. And because the chemicals were not well
understood, they were not revealed by urine tests, as THC is.

Moreover, unlike THC and marijuana, some of the compounds weren't
listed by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration as illegal,
frustrating police and prosecutors who saw a growing danger.

Partly in response, Arkansas, California and at least nine other
states last year banned a list of compounds used in Spice.

Moran's team helps law enforcement agencies in Arkansas, Arizona,
Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York identify new versions of
Spice, also called K2, because street chemists regularly produce new
chemical formulas to sell synthetic marijuana in shops and on websites.

"You don't really know what's in it," said Kim Brown, a forensic
chemist in the Arkansas State crime lab. As proof, she showed her
analysis of the contents of two foil packets found in a car during a
traffic stop.

The label read, "Bayou Blaster, a swamp-filled potpourri," and had a
cartoon of a dancing alligator. It promised that no illegal chemical
compounds were inside, and that the packet was "USA lab certified legal."

Brown's tests showed it contained JWH73, one of the illegal chemical
compounds. "A lot of it," she said.
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