Risk vs. gain: It's the equation weighed by every stock investor. Now it must be mulled over by Utahns concerned about the testing of deadly germs and toxins - and potentially hazardous simulants - at Dugway Proving Ground.
Dugway officers formally notified the state Thursday afternoon that they will resume testing of defensive germ and chemical warfare agents in a revamped laboratory on June 3, giving citizens and officials just over 30 days to familiarize themselves with the proposed experiments. The base has not tested dangerous material since 1985.Officers said they intend to satisfy the Citizens Advisory Committee's safety concerns.
The tests might help perfect field gear that soldiers could use to warn of germ warfare or chemical agent attacks and help them take effective counter-measures.
Dugway's representatives assured committee members that the simulants tested in the open air won't be harmful and that the dangerous material will be contained in a safe, approved, airtight laboratory facility. But at least one member - the committee's head, Dr. Kenneth Buchi - voiced concerns about the actual safety of simulants, based on past history.
A member of the committee, Dr. Susan Mottice of the State Health Laboratory, was a member of a biological safety committee that inspected Dugway's newly revamped Baker Lab on April 24. She told the committee that to the best of her knowledge, the joint federal-state group's concerns about the lab's safety were answered.
But Dr. Naomi Franklin, a research professor at the University of Utah, questioned the value of the tests. In the experiments, antibody reactions will be used to identify the presence of dangerous germs.
Franklin, who said she was speaking on her own behalf and not for the university, said a possible flaw is that a soldier would have to know which pathogen to look for.
Franklin wondered, how a soldier could know what germs an enemy's arsenal contained.
Col. Frank J. Cox, Dugway's commander, responded that within a few years of continued testing, the device may have a whole "catalog" of material it could identify. The point of the initial tests, he said, is to help the manufacturer decide whether it's worthwhile to go ahead with development.
"We're going to make a test to see if it performs at it should," to help with the decision, Cox said. "We got the impetus to this bio-detection during the Desert Shield-Desert Storm," when Iraq seemed to pose a threat of biological and chemical warfare.
After Thursday's meeting, Franklin told the Deseret News that risk versus gain is the big question.
"Is there any gain?" she said. "I don't have the impression that this approach is going to be very practical."
The Army's side of the issue was explained by Dick Whitaker, a civilian spokesman for Dugway. If one's son was drafted, he asked, shouldn't he go into the field with the best possible detection equipment? What if a new device resulting from Dugway's tests could save his life?
So the questions boil down to assessing the risk of possible contamination of civilians or land against the possible gain from arming soldiers with the new device. Unknowns include the scale of the risk, which the Army says is minute, and the likelihood that the device will work.
Steve Erickson, spokesman for the military watchdog group Downwinders, complained that Dugway already started testing the safety of the equipment using simulants, without first notifying the state.
Cox said he thought Dugway promised to tell state officials at least one month in advance before using pathogens but had not made any pledges regarding simulants.
However, Buchi said, "My understanding is it would be biological defense testing," not limited to pathogens, that triggered the notification.
Starting June 3, the Army intends to run about ten tests on each of three toxins and two pathogens. According to Dugway Proving Ground, this will be its procedure for decontaminating equipment after the testing:
- All test equipment will be air-washed for 24 hours.
- It will then be fumigated with paraformaldehyde for four hours.
- Next, it will be washed with a solution of sodium hypochlorite.
- Finally, all unused micro-organisms will be destroyed by a chemical disinfectant and steam sterilization.