Environmental Pathology staff (from left) Marie Jenkins, HT, ASCP, histochemical technologist, Florabel G. Mullick, MD, ScD, SES, Department Chair, Frank Johnson, MD, SES, chief, Division of Chemical Pathology, and Victor Kalasinsky, PhD, chief, Division of Environmental Toxicology, at the Hitachi S-3500N Scanning Electron Microscope with the ThermoNoran Energy Dispersive X-Ray accessory.

Detecting Environmental Terrorism: AFIP's Department of Environmental and Toxicologic Pathology provides critical DoD, Homeland Defense programs

by Christopher C. Kelly
When US Army investigators at Ft Detrick, Md, examined anthrax found in a letter sent to Sen. Thomas Daschle last fall, they discovered that the highly refined spores floated in the air, making them much easier for potential victims to inhale. What made this anthrax so easily aerosolized? A series of sophisticated tests revealed some clues, but the presence of another unidentifiable substance left the investigation incomplete. That’s when Ft Detrick contacted AFIP’s Department of Environmental and Toxicologic Pathology for assistance. 

Established in 1976, the department’s combined staff of 22 pathologists, scientists, and administrative personnel conducts studies in environmental, drug-induced, and radiation pathology, and in the development, implementation, and application of toxicological techniques to analyze tissues. They have contributed significant research findings by creating and maintaining specialized registries and databases in a variety of areas, including the effects of Agent Orange, Persian Gulf Illness, and captivity on US service-members. 

They are also recognized worldwide for their expertise in the pathology of adverse drug reactions, environmental toxicology, and the pathology and health effects of trace elements and toxic metal ions - all of which impact deployed US forces. Other databases and registries used to assess long-term safety and potential adverse complications from environmental factors include bioimplantable materials (metal fragments from munitions); exposure to chronic arsenosis; and medical geology (the effects of geological and environmental factors on the distribution of health problems in humans and animals). 

They are especially focused on programs in response to potential acts of environmental terrorism. In recent months, staff members have participated in a number of Department of Defense (DoD) projects to protect servicemembers and provide support for homeland defense. The recent anthrax study was one of them. 

“Ft Detrick sought our assistance to determine the specific components of the anthrax found in the Daschle letter,” said Florabel G. Mullick, MD, ScD, SES, AFIP Principal Deputy Director and department chair. AFIP experts utilized an energy dispersive X-ray spectrometer (an instrument used to detect the presence of otherwise-unseen chemicals through characteristic wavelengths of X-ray light) to confirm the previously unidentifiable substance as silica. “This was a key component,” Mullick said. “Silica prevents the anthrax from aggregating, making it easier to aerosolize. Significantly, we noted the absence of aluminum with the silica. This combination had previously been found in anthrax produced by Iraq.” 

The department is also collaborating with the Soldier’s Biological and Chemical Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and AFIP’s Division of Microbiology, Department of Infectious and Parasitic Diseases Pathology, on the use of infrared and Raman spectroscopy to potentially detect micro-organisms in the environment. Scientists in the Division of Microbiology first culture, isolate, and heat- or radiation-kill microorganisms, and then environmental pathology experts conduct the infrared and Raman characterization. ”The potential exists for this technology to be implemented in the field, in a ‘real-time’ setting, to provide an immediate characterization of a biological or chemical weapon that could be used against our servicemembers,” Dr. Mullick said. These techniques are also available to aid authorities in identifying unknown and suspicious chemicals found in powders and other substances. 

In the area of chemical defense, the department is conducting studies to learn more about the health effects of internalized fragments of depleted uranium in soldiers injured in the battlefield. A special focus of these studies is on Gulf War veterans who were potentially exposed to depleted uranium either by inhalation, ingestion, or embedded shrapnel. “This really reflects our long-standing work with the US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (USACHPPM),” she pointed out. “Our scientists deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm with USACHPPM to study potential environmental hazards to our deployed troops, and we continue those studies today.” 

DoD is also relying upon AFIP’s environmental pathology expertise in the area of adverse drug reactions. The department has been identified as an integral part of DoD’s Patient Safety Center, also located at AFIP. The center is a focal point for preventing patient-care errors that directly affect servicemembers and their dependents. A database containing over 18,000 cases of adverse drug reactions and medical errors is being developed for use with collaborators to help prevent the occurrence of incidents in the future. “We are also exploring collaborations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, along with opportunities for involvement in clinical drug trials,” she said. 

Silicon Dioxide (Silica), as it appears through energy dispersive X-ray analysis