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Army Resumes Biological-Agent Tests at Dugway after 10-year Cessation

Author: Jim Woolf
Publication: Salt Lake Tribune
Document Dated: January 27, 1993
Date Posted: January 15, 1997


The Army this week resumed its most dangerous type of testing with disease-causing agents at western Utah's Dugway Proving Ground, ending a 10-year hiatus.

Researchers at the isolated Baker Laboratory injected weakened or killed strains of two deadly organisms into the air in a test chamber to see whether they could be detected by a machine designed to ward American troops of an attack with biological-warfare agents. The military does not have such a machine.

Mixing biological agents with air--a process called "aerosolization"--is risky because a tiny leak in the test equipment could allow the organisms to escape.

Army experts claim their elaborate safety precautions will prevent such a leak, but critics contend a serious accident is possible.

State officials and independent scientists were briefed on this test during a public meeting April 1, 1992. They raised no objections.

Such testing was routine at Dugway until early 1983 when the Army concluded its equipment was too old to ensure safety. The Baker Laboratory has been renovated since then, allowing testing to resume.

Dugway officials have annouced plans to conduct several biological-defense tests involving the aerosoliozation of disease-causing organisms and natural toxins. The tests were supposed to have started last year, but unexpected problems delayed testing until this week.

Melynda J. Petrie, spokeswoman for Dugway, said scientists have started tests of a Chemical Biological Mass Spectrometer (CBMS). This hand-held device is designed to sound an alarm when it detects the presence of either biological- or chemical-warfare agents.

The tests will determine whether the device can detect two dangerous micro-organisms: Coxiella burnetii, the bacteria that causes Q fever; and Yersinia Pestia, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague.

Ms. Petrie said the Q fever bacteria is killed prior to testing to reduce the chance of an accident. That is done by heating it for an hour in an autoclave. The plague bacteria is from a weakened strain used to vaccinate humans.

The CBMS detector cannot tell the difference between the organisms being tested and their more dangerous cousins, said Ms. Petrie.

She said some of the tests will mix the disease-causing organism with such things as diesel fumes and the smoke from burning plants to see whether the device is overwhelmed by chemicals that might be found on the battlefield.


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