Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.
April 28, 2004
Hi, I'm Parney Albright, and I'm the Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology at the Department of Homeland Security. It is a real pleasure to be here and I'm looking forward to answering your questions
Warren, from Lansing writes:
There are a set of recommendations at ready.gov that I recommend that the public go to, and there are a list of items that they should have stockpiled in their homes and they ought to have a kit like that at the ready.
They also should make plans with their families to make sure they know how to communicate with each other in case of such an event.
Steve, from Naperville writes:
For example, we have deployed to a very large number of our urban areas a program called BioWatch which samples the atmosphere for the presence of pathogens in a timely enough way so that we can react to that threat and treat the affected population.
We have piloted in our subway systems means for detecting chemical agents. Obviously after the attacks in Tokyo that is something as a world we have to be prepared for.
And more importantly we announced today Homeland Security Presidential Directive Ten which basically takes those kinds of programs and many, many others and clearly assigns to the various federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security very clear accountabilities and responsibilities for creating in effect a scheme for protecting the American public against these types of threats.
Charlotte, from Binghampton writes:
As I mentioned before, this is a directive which clearly assigns responsibilities to various fed agencies and assigns to the Dept of Homeland Security the responsibility for making sure that this is a well coordinated effort; that we understand the threat and that all the things that we need to do are being addressed.
For example, the EPA has the responsibility of protecting our nations water supply not just from terrorism but from all kinds of contaminants that might creep in due to pollutants or for other reasons.
There is a very active research program underway in the EPAs laboratory in Cincinnati Ohio. They are looking at the kinds of sensors and testing out policies and procedures aimed at detecting in a timely way the threat to our water supply.
One of the things you have to understand about water though is, there is a lot of it. It is very, very hard to contaminate it to cause significant public health dangers. I think weve all heard stories in the press about terrorists about planning on putting things like cyanide in our water supply. Well, youd have to bring truckloads of it before you would be able to put enough in before there would be any noticeable affect on the public health.
Nevertheless, we are very close to the EPA to make sure our water supply is well protected.
Brian, from Hampton, VA writes:
We would work very, very closely with the local public health officials what would actually happen.
Im unaware of any technology though that would cause an electromagnetic wall to prevent the escape of biological pathogens.
As much as wed all like to have these types of things, we are a long, long way from having the shields that Captain Kirk, for example, can call upon to protect his people.
Terry, from Union City, Indiana
We have efforts underway within the Department of Homeland Security, HHS and the Department of Defense, that we think through carefully the kinds of genetic modifications and genetic engineering that might be done so we can get ahead of the emerging threat.
This is another example of the very large success announced today by the administration. One of the things that it calls for it assigns the Department of Homeland Security the responsibility and accountability for conducting these kinds of studies against emerging threats and working closely with HHS and the folks at the Pentagon to get ahead of the curve on this important threat.
Tory, from Wheeling writes:
We have EPA, USDA, all federal agencies have had many efforts underway aimed at countering the bioterrorism threat. There has been a lot of coordination at the White House level through the Homeland Security Council through the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Security Council to integrate these efforts together.
Todays announcement institutionalizes all of these activities. It takes a set of activities , a set of interagency plans and procedures that this administration for the first time brought together after September 11 and after the anthrax incidents. So every couple of years we are going to and end to end assessment.
We have clearly identified the various federal agencies what their responsibilities are in an unambiguous manner.
This creates an environment where we now on an enduring basis will have budgets and strategies in place to combat the threat of bioterrorism into the future and therefore take the activities that weve had in place that has certainly made the nation more safer than it was before and now have a directive in place and a capability that this momentum continues into the future.
Mike, from New Hampshire
We have a national strategic stockpile of pharmaceuticals that we could deploy in the event of an epidemic or some public health emergency.
Weve gone from 8 fifty ton pushpacks to 12 since then. Weve mass trained our public health community in their ability to respond to this type of event. Our colleagues in HHS have taken their role extraordinarily seriously. We have significant research development efforts to develop new vaccines and medical countermeasures to respond to such an epidemic.
We have scenarios in place with which we plan so we can be assured that all the logistics of the structure that you need to have to respond to such a threat can occur.
So absolutely, we are far, far better to respond to an epidemic than we were even a short time ago.
peter, from dewey beach
One is the massive expansion of the program called BioWatch which is a set of environmental samplers which we have in most of our urban areas that we deployed soon after September 11 to address the risk of biopathogens like an anthrax attack for example.
So we have these samplers in place and they would detect an anthrax attack, for example, in a way timely enough for us to be able to treat the affected population. And that is a very important capability in the biosurveillance initiative that the President announced in his fy2005 budget. Biowatch is an important part of that.
But another very important part of that is medical surveillance. That is the capacity to collect data from hospital emergency rooms, from clinical laboratories not just public hospitals but also at places like Department of Defense clinics, VA hospitals, veterinary clinics for example the first sign that we had a West Nile problem came from people correlating the presence of dead crows with people that had symptoms. So wed be looking at veterinary signs.
Food poisoning centers .all this data will come together and will be coupled with threat information that we get associated with intelligence information that we also get from the intelligence community and also the environmental sampling capability that I mentioned earlier. And it will all be brought together to look for signs of a bioterrorist attack.
A very important part that you should come away with is that all of this has been put in place and funded to respond to bioterrorism events, it clearly has an enormous impact on our ability in our public health posture.
So for example, if Im monitoring the sales of over the counter drugs like Tylenol and aspirin at Wal Mart for example, and if Im also monitoring whats going on in emergency rooms and public health clinics, Im going to not only detect bioterrorist attacks but Im going to be seeing the signs of the next flu epidemics. And Im going to see the signs of pediatric viruses that go through school communities once in awhile. And all of the other things that affect our nations public health not just bioterrorism.
We all hope that we wont see a bioterrorist attack again, but nevertheless, putting this system in place doesnt just make us safer but it makes us a lot healthier too and we should remember that.
Jeff, from Daily Times Leader, West Point, Miss.
Clearly some of that money will go for personal protective equipment so they can enter a zone where a chemical attack might have occurred. Some of that money will go detection equipment so that if they get suspicious white powder the local public health authorities can make the determination of whether it is a real threat or not before calling up the feds.
Virtually all the money to combat bioterrorism will not through Homeland Security grant money but federal investment that would be made on the national scale.
The grant money is all about first responder and public safety officials.
And the grant money that comes from HHS is all about the public health folks local hospitals, state and local activities.
As for your second question, under the new directive the EPA has the clear responsibility for dealing with the water supply. At DHS, there are a number of research development efforts in improving sensor technology for example to help protect the water supply but we will rely on EPA to coordinate those activities with us.
I should say however, that I believe our local water supplies are very safe.
Rodney, from Flushing writes:
Thats not the only threat we worry about. We worry about lots of things. Obviously we are being very proactive our aviation industry. WE have deployed massive amounts of screening and detection equipment at our airports. We have deployed radiation detection to our borders. We have sent millions of dollars to state and local officials to prepare our first responders better in their ability to respond to a wide variety of issues not just public health threats although that is part of it.
We are talking about bioterrorism today because the administration has taken a major step forward in assuring that the fairly substantial activities that we have had underway in the last two years in biodefense and by the way these are new activities and making sure these activities endure and are continued and constantly refined in the future.