Report: Laboratories unprepared for chemical attack

U.S. laboratories are not prepared to analyze or respond to a chemical weapons attack, the Association of Public Health Laboratories announced today.

If terrorists attacked using dangerous chemical agents, laboratories would not be prepared to test environmental samples and provide crucial information on contaminated areas, according to an APHL report. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken steps to test victims in a chemical attack, environmental testing has lagged, the association says.

"State public health laboratories will be left in the lurch if the homeland were attacked today," according to the report.

"Suppose a terrorist attacks an arena in Phoenix with a chemical weapon," APHL Executive Director Scott Becker said, "doctors and patients' families are clamoring for rapid identification of the agent, but the laboratory director has to send samples to a high-security laboratory on the other side of the country. It's the best he can do."

Last month, the Trust for America's Health released a similar report that said the U.S. public health system was "woefully unprepared" to deal with a terrorist attack. That report faulted the analytical capacity of U.S. laboratories.

The APHL report also noted that laboratory employees could be subjected to unsafe working conditions.

"Those who weathered the anthrax attacks [of 2001] understand the consequences of accepting samples that are meant to harm … At this time, public health laboratories are being asked to evaluate chemical terrorism threats, but are not equipped to do so safely," the report says.

Echoing a common complaint, the association said the nation's public health infrastructure is underfunded and that an attack would stretch already scarce resources.

"There is simply no reserve workforce available to help states cope with chemical testing in the aftermath of a terrorist attack," according to the report.

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