Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, the United States has spent huge sums of money in preparation for responding to a possible WMD (weapon of mass destruction) attack. A significant portion of the funds allocated has been intended for the detection andentification of the WMD agent(s) that may be used by terrorist organizations. Among the many advances in detection andentification that have resulted are quicker response times for handheld detectors, increased sensitivity, and improved interconnectivity via wireless networks.

The protective clothing worn by responders also has improved significantly, and has resulted in increased “stay” times, more comfortable and longer “wearability,” and better protective masks. The United States has also extensively developed and conducted numerous training exercises for the nation’s first responders and has stood up a National Guard Civil Support Team in every State.

However, the standard practice used for environmental sampling remains largely unchanged. Here it should be remembered that, when first responders are required to don a so-called “Level A” suit and directed to enter a hot zone to take environmental WMD samples, they are risking their own lives for the sake of others. For that reason alone, it is imperative that the results achieved are worth the significant risks involved.

Gold-Standard Results Require Gold-Standard Samples 

To conduct what might be considered “gold standard” analyses, the samples themselves must be gold standard as well. Unfortunately, first responders are too often given sampling equipment that has either not been tested  properly for interferences, not packaged to avoid cross-contamination, not acceptable to the intended analyzing laboratory, and/or not capable of being defended in court. In short, the best sampling tools should be provided for responders – tools that not only will deliver accurate and reproducible results but also withstand scrutiny in court.

The last aspect of this multifaceted sampling challenge – the component encompassing standardized sampling procedures – has not yet been fully or adequately addressed. However, the American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) has published a National Standard for the Sampling of Suspicious Powders from Non-Porous Surfaces (E2458-10). That standard was negotiated with all stakeholders in 2006 (and revised in 2010), but is still not widely used despite the fact that, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s WMD Directorate, over 30,000 “white powder incidents” have been reported since 2001.

Another indicator of nonconformity involves the way in which laboratory WMD analyses are handled. Without having control over the quality of the samples received, laboratory staff must “make do” with what they are given. That approach obviously leads to a greater chance for sampling errors.

Suspicious Procedures & Misleading Conclusions

Because the field screening techniques now used are not always dependable, first responders currently take environmental samples of all suspicious substances found at white-powder incidents and send them to a Gold Standard Lab. However, the first responders themselves continue to use inadequate sampling tools – with no interference testing or cross-contamination avoidance – and to follow local sampling techniques. Samples should be reliable enough to stand up in court – but that requirement cannot be guaranteed under current circumstances and using the sampling tools and techniques now available.

Any sampling process is only as good as its weakest link. In the overall sampling and analysis process, an accurate sample is needed to guarantee a reasonably reliable analysis. To meet the ASTM National Standard previously mentioned, therefore, the sampling equipment now being used needs to be re-evaluated and, if necessary, replaced with more reliable tools.

It is generally recognized that the budgets for first responders are necessarily limited, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, but the cost of providing higher-quality sampling tools and improved standardized procedures is relatively small: (a) when considered as a percentage of the overall cost of an effective WMD response; and (b) when compared to the much higher cost of an inaccurate, misleading, and/or legally indefensible analysis.

Rodney Hudson
Rodney Hudson

Rodney Hudson is a retired Army veteran with 21 years of service and the founder/owner of QuickSilver Analytics (QS) Inc. QS is an ISO 9001-2008 registered, Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business that has provided forensic quality CBRNE sampling kits to the First Responder community since January 2000. QuickSilver (QS) has been providing WMD sampling kits and tools of forensic quality during that same time frame, and currently manufactures the only sampling kit fully compatible with the ASTM Standard E2458-06 for the sampling of suspicious powders from non-porous surfaces.

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