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ENVIRONMENT REPORT – January 31, 2003: Pollution Stations to Test for Biological Attacks - 2003-01-31

This is the VOA Special English Environment Report.

Workers in the United States have begun deploying a new system to test for biological weapons. The system, called Bio-Watch, would provide early warning if smallpox, anthrax or other deadly organisms are released into the air.

Bush administration officials say new equipment will be put in many of the three-thousand air quality measuring centers nationwide. These centers are operated by the Environmental Protection Agency to measure air pollution. The officials say reports of anything unusual would lead to additional tests. They say results of the new early warning system would be confirmed within twenty-four hours.

Administration officials say the system could help save thousands of people during a possible biological weapons attack. They say it would give the government more time to treat attack victims and protect others before it is too late.

Terrorism experts have warned that a small airplane could release anthrax or other germs over a crowd of people. Thousands of people could become sick. Yet it could take days for the government to discover what happened.

Officials say the early warning system is not linked to a new terrorist threat. They say the system was tested last year at the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

If unusual organisms are discovered at the observation centers, the test results would be sent to a public health laboratory. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention operates one-hundred-twenty of these laboratories. Laboratory scientists would test the organisms using a method called polymerase chain reaction, or P-C-R. These tests examine the genetic structure of an organism and quickly identify it. P-C-R tests are considered better than hand-held devices often used by emergency crews. Such devices often falsely report the presence of an organism.

American officials say the federal government will pay one-million dollars to improve the equipment at the air quality centers. Officials expect the new system will cost one-million dollars each year to operate in each city.

Officials say the system would not be able to identify biological agents released in closed areas or the spread of such organisms through the mail. The new Bio-Watch system began operating in New York City recently. It will expand across the nation.

This VOA Special English Environment Report was written by George Grow.