The U.S. Homeland Security Department has given more details on its $60 million sensor network to detect bioterrorism threats in 31 cities. Devices that continuously analyze cities’ air could save tens of thousands of lives in the days after a wide-scale attack, the Associated Press quotes officials as saying. Neighborhoods covered in the 31 cities include about half the U.S. population.
The project, called Biowatch, is intended to protect Americans from terrorists who might spread deadly biological pathogens, including anthrax, smallpox and plague. The network of nearly 500 sensors has never raised a false alarm, said Parney Albright, an assistant secretary for Homeland Security. Officials refused to say which cities were covered, but local authorities have said some devices are in New York, Washington, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston.
Critics say Biowatch cannot detect small releases that could sicken hundreds or thousands, does not monitor attacks indoors, and lets too much time pass between a possible attack and testing of air samples. “Unless it is a major atmospheric release of large quantities of material, I do not think it would be hard at all for Biowatch to miss an attack,” said Calvin Chue of Johns Hopkins University.
Last month when two Biowatch sensors in Houston detected fragments over three consecutive days of tularemia–bacteria common among rabbits, prairie dogs, and rodents that sometimes spreads to humans. It turned out to be naturally occurring – not a terrorist attack – and no people got sick.
Tthe Biowatch project is relatively cheap by Washington standards – roughly $60 million each year. “It won’t save everyone,” Albright said. “By the time we get the hit confirmed, the people who are going to be contaminated have already been contaminated.”