Biological and chemical attacks: should we lock the doors?

Words by DEBIKA RAY

illustration of a defensive realm
Artwork: Michelle Thompson

If low-tech terrorist attacks are terrifying for their randomness, attacks with chemical and biological agents are terrifying for their incredible potency. And these fears are justified, according to Leslie Gartner, senior vice president at WSP in the US, who specializes in creating high-containment laboratories that experiment with highly infectious diseases. The risk of such attacks has increased, he says, because it is now possible to develop synthetic agents, rather than relying on natural ones. “Within a few years, there may be a synthetic agent that’s the equivalent of a smallpox,” he warns, adding that a new wild virus tends to be discovered every five years, often with devastating effect.

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It is now common practice to design vulnerable buildings to withstand intrusion and blast, but there is still some way to go when it comes to protecting them from chemical and biological attack. Sensors could be faster and there is no agreed strategy for what to do when an agent is discovered, Gartner says. “Should we lock all the doors? Would it be better to suck out all of the air or to stop it from moving? How do you clean up afterwards?”

Scientists are attempting to find answers to these questions, and the buildings where they work might indicate the scale of the challenge for the built environment. Gartner was involved in the design of a facility to test the dispersion of chemical agents, which included a sealed 30ft-high structure into which solids, liquids or gases can be injected from the top. It was fabricated off site and dropped through the roof of the building, with the labatory built around it. Another was designed to test the efficacy of clothing against chemical attacks, using a double-walled stainless steel chamber with a wind tunnel inside. “One of the strategies in the design of a containment chamber is to create negative pressure to keep things inside. Here, though, the wind tunnel created a positive effect which could cause the agent to leak out, so we designed a gas-tight space between the two walls.”

“Within a few years, there may be a synthetic agent that’s the equivalent of a smallpox”

Leslie Gartner, WSP

Such facilities can’t just be sealed boxes — in any research laboratory, people, products, equipment and information must be able to circulate freely. “I often get asked, ‘Why don’t you just put these facilities underground?’ But you can’t get people to work underground, and it creates the impression of clandestine activities. Our role is to create great working environments that have security built in, but aren’t just concrete walls and fences.”

Subtle architectural solutions can help to achieve this triple aim of transparency, ambiance and security. An atrium, for example, can physically separate one part of a building from another, while providing a visual connection and allowing in light without being exposed to public view. “The real challenge is not to create bunkers, but to create great, inspirational research facilities that are as secure as a bunker.”

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