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New Technology to Improve Emergency Response to Subway Terror Attack

Public Forum on “T” Biosensor Testing on May 16

May 9, 2012

Q&A: Biological Detection Sensor Testing and Airflow Studies

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) on two national anti-terrorism projects designed to detect the release of hazardous substances on a subway system and minimize harm to riders and the community.

The first project, called “Detect-to-Protect,” involves testing new biological detection sensors developed by the Department of Homeland Security at T stations in Cambridge (Harvard and Porter) and Somerville (Davis). The tests will determine how the sensor network performs in a real subway system. 

The sensors have the capability to positively identify a hazardous biological agent within 20 minutes, allowing emergency responders to act quickly to contain the hazard, safely evacuate passengers, and provide appropriate medical treatment.

The Department of Homeland Security has worked closely with the MBTA, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Cambridge and Somerville health departments in planning for the installation and testing of the Detect-to-Protect sensors.

The second project, which began in 2009, involves ongoing airflow tests in the MBTA subway system. These tests look at differences in airflow due to system design, tunnel configuration, ventilation systems, and local weather to ensure that detection equipment is placed in the right locations to provide the earliest warnings.

Public Forum on “T” Biosensor Testing

The substance that will be used to test the biological detection sensors is a non-infectious, killed bacterium that even in its live form is not considered harmful to humans. The bacterium, called Bacillus subtilis, is currently used in farming, as a food supplement for humans and livestock, and in organic pet foods.

Detect-to-Protect biological detection sensors have been installed in the Harvard, Porter, and Davis subway stations, and are currently monitoring background conditions. The specific tests using the biological material are planned for this year and have not yet started.

Testing of the biological detection sensors will take place late at night when the subway is closed to the public.

A forum will be held on Wednesday, May 16 for the public to learn more about the project and make comments. The public forum will be held at the Cambridge YMCA in Central Square, 820 Massachusetts Avenue, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

A 28-page environmental assessment, prepared by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, reviewed data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other published studies for any potential harm associated with this bacterial strain. Studies cited in the assessment examined inhalation, as well as ingestion and skin contact.  These studies found no adverse effects in the range of concentrations that could conceivably be encountered in these tests.  The report, Environmental Assessment for Bacillus subtilis Particles to Challenge Bio-Detection Sensors in Subway Stations, is available at: www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/st/st_dea_detect_to_protect.pdf

Comments on the document and test plan may be submitted to: MBTATest@hq.dhs.gov. DHS will take into consideration all comments on the environmental assessment received by the close of business on June 15, 2012. Please include your name and address for any needed clarification or follow up.


Suzy Feinberg, MPH
Public Information Officer

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