No NBAF in Kansas

Real Biosecurity for the Heartland

Archive for January, 2012

NRC Meets at KSU to Review DHS Risk Assessment

Posted by tmanney on January 31, 2012

Members of the National Research Council held a public hearing on the risks associated with National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility Friday morning in Manhattan, where the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is building the $650 million lab near Kansas State University. As part of the project’s funding, Congress has required the National Research Council to conduct a risk assessment on the lab. An initial risk report was released in 2010. That report raised questions that led to further review of the lab and the plans for security measures to protect livestock and humans if pathogens are released. The NRC held an information gathering hearing prior to the release of the DHS revised risk assessment.

The first hour of the meeting was a question and answer session between four members of the NRC committee and selected members of the KSU Veterinary Medicine faculty and administration. The second hour was public comment.

Following are written comments submitted to the NRC committee elaborating on comments

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Major Problems Have Not Been Addressed

Posted by tmanney on January 31, 2012



       Bill Dorsett

       1715 Leavenworth

       Manhattan, KS 66502



            Peggy Tsai, Program Officer                                                                                                                        

            Board on Agriculture & Natural Resources

            National Academies of Sciences

 RE: NBAF, Public Comments

The goal of the National Academies of Sciences in Friday’s NBAF hearing was to judge whether the science underlying the biolabs’s design is “adequate” and “valid.” But several major issues brought up by the previous NRC committee will remain a problem no matter how many risk assessments are done: 1. the fact that the DHS SSRA gives incomplete thought to pathogens other than FMD, 2. this is by definition a large animal facility. 3. how to build and maintain a safe lab on a finite but unpredictable budget (“Value Engineering”).

  1. Avian flu H5N1 has proven hugely lethal particularly to birds raised for food, and penned in close quarters. So there is every reason to believe that it will be added to the select pathogens studied at NBAF. This particular strain of flu virus is also among the deadliest to humans.

To put this in context, the notorious 1918 flu pandemic (originating at Ft Riley) killed 40 million to 50 million people worldwide but was lethal to only about 2% of those infected.  This one kills close to 60%. Until last month, scientists haven’t been overly concerned because H5N1 hasn’t been easily transmitted to or between humans.

Probably even at the time of the most recent Homeland Security design revisions, Dutch experiments hadn’t yet shown that a new variation of H5N1 can be readily transmitted through the air, from mammal to mammal. This Dutch experiment produced calls from the bio-security community for international oversight of potentially dangerous experiments.

But experience tells us that DHS would be unresponsive to international concerns. In 2002, the US admitted that against WHO convention, it holds viruses that are combinations of smallpox virus with animal poxviruses such as rabbitpox and cowpox. WHO quickly called for their immediate destruction; but the US has refused and now says that it wishes to increase experimentation with the hybrid viruses. The US justification was that its national security demanded more research on defenses against smallpox used as a biological weapon. Given this precedence, why should we believe DHS will be forthcoming to international concern, much less be responsive to any local oversight committee.

 In spite of KSU’s insistence that layers of veterinary surveillance will catch exotic diseases, one has to doubt that local vets and certainly not students will have full information of what pathogens are being studied in NBAF, and how they are being genetically manipulated leading to totally different symptoms. Why would we expect them to know symptoms of diseases they are not told about?

Even then, the probability of misdiagnosis of unfamiliar diseases is high. Ft Detrick’s own medical staff diagnosed one of its researches as having flu when in reality it was tularemia.

So how do DHS plans “adequately and validly” protect the public, or the local infrastructure prepare, when the agencies running the lab have a history of secrecy?

  1. Proponents’ comparison the CDC in the middle of Atlanta with NBAF is clearly for non-scientific public consumption. In Atlanta, no researchers climb into the isolation cabinet with the infected steer. The sheer volume of ventilation air, feed and waste won’t change regardless of the number of risk assessments.
  1. Value Engineering   In these years of lean budgets, we can assume that the lab’s design is very mission oriented…no frills.  Yet in the last National Academies’ critique, an overarching concern was “Value Engineering. For example, given the destruction from F5 tornados on Joplin and Greensburg, the lab design is being revised from an F2 to an F3 tornado*. In response to the expense of additional concrete and rebar, will Homeland Security settle for i.e. software controls that are more vulnerable to something comparable to the Stuxnet computer worm which made Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spin out of control?

And just as critical as the construction phase, how can anyone in the realm of science project future congressional budget cuts to the lab’s upkeep? One of the Pirbright Laboratory releases is thought to have been caused by tree roots growing into a sewage line….deferred maintenance caused by a tighter budget.  That concern goes double for subcontracting to management corporations. It is predictable, for example, that periods of quarantine following extended or especially hazardous work shifts would reduce profitability.

Each of these issues shows the futility an agency faces when it tries to engineer order on human unpredictability. The NRC is being asked to sign off on the “adequacy” and “validity” of hard science over “soft.” The cost of failure could be unimaginable. It would be ironic if Ft Riley/Manhattan hosts its second global flu pandemic.

*We are not as concerned about structural destruction of the lab from a tornado, as we are the more subtle effects of tremendous overpressure changes on HEPA filters, door seals and internal air balances.

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Another Look at the Tornado Risk

Posted by tmanney on January 31, 2012




By Thomas R. Manney

Professor Emeritus, Department of Physics and Division of Biology

Kansas State University

January 30, 2012


            My comments concern an aspect of the risk that pathogens will be released by a tornado. When a strong tornado passes near a structure, two forces must be considered.  First, the kinetic energy of the winds can produce catastrophic damage to inadequate structures.  Second, the vortex of a tornado produces a sudden, local, severe drop in the atmospheric pressure. The pressure drop may contribute to structural damage, but it may well have additional consequences when the objective is to keep the contents of the building, especially microorganisms, from escaping.


In the SSRA , most of the discussion of risks posed by tornados has focused on the potential for structural failure or collapse. But I have found no consideration of the possibility that a sudden drop in atmospheric pressure could contribute to the release of pathogens from negative pressure containment compartments.


There are relatively few research papers reporting direct measurements of ground-level pressures near tornados.  An apparently definitive paper is “Pressure at the ground in a large tornado” (W. P. Winn, S. J Hunyady, and G. D Aulich Journal Of Geophysical Research, 104, 22,067-22,082, 1999).  They measured pressures near an F4 tornado in Allison Texas in 1995. They reported, “The instrument closest to the tornado recorded a pressure drop of about 55 mbar (hPa) as the tornado approached and a rise of about 60 mbar (hPa) as the tornado receded.”


 Another group has summarized measurements near 24 tornados with a range of pressure deficits from 5 hPa to 194 hPa,(“Near-Ground Pressure and Wind Measurements in Tornados” by Christopher D. Karstens, et. al., in Monthly  Weather Review, 138, 2570-2588, 2010).


            A fundamental principal of containing microorganisms is to maintain them in a sealed chamber that is kept at a negative pressure.  The pressure in the chamber must be kept below the pressure outside the chamber. A typical value for this negative pressure in a Class III biological safety cabinet is quoted as at least 0.5 inches of water. In units of inches of water, a pressure of one atm is about 400 inches, so the pressure deficit measured near the Allison, TX tornado would have been about 24 inches.  The magnitude of this pressure drop is about 50 times the small negative pressure difference commonly maintained between  a Class III containment chamber and its surroundings.


            A Class III biological safety cabinet, for example, is a closed, gas-tight enclosure fitted with arm-length rubber gloves.  All supply air is filtered through HEPA filters and exhaust air is filtered through two HEPA filters in series. An exhaust blower maintains negative pressure.  Although the normal fluctuations of atmospheric pressure are themselves greater than this negative pressure difference, the fluctuations are relatively gradual so the exhaust blower can easily maintain the differential. The same reasoning would apply to larger containment spaces used for handling live animals, such as cattle, in BL-3 Ag facilities.


            In the event of a tornado, however, the pressure drop is sudden.  The question then is whether the system can maintain the negative internal pressure in the event of a large, sudden depression? The seals around doors in large chambers have been a historical weakness. Have they been designed to handle such a transient event (and if so, can that be verified)?


            In conclusion, the apparent potential for a strong tornado to over-power the containment door seals, thereby releasing pathogens into the tornado, is a serious consideration that I have not seen discussed in the SSRA.





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