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NIOSH Respiratory Diseases Research Program

Evidence Package for the National Academies' Review 2006-2007

NIOSH Programs > Respiratory Diseases > Evidence Package > 10. Emergency Response and Disaster Preparedness

10.2 Protect Building Air from Chemical Biological or Radiological Attacks

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Immediately following the anthrax attacks of October, 2001, the Secretary of DHHS asked NIOSH to help managers of government buildings perceived to be at high risk of terrorist attacks understand what steps could be taken to better protect individuals in those buildings from airborne Chemical, Biological, or Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) attacks. The work done in response to this request is also relevant to SARS, avian influenza, sarin gas, and dirty bombs.


RDRP engineers and scientists used their knowledge of building systems, contaminant dispersal, ventilation/filtration systems and the anthrax used in the postal attacks to conduct building vulnerability assessments of nearly 60 government and public facilities. The majority of the vulnerability evaluations were conducted in November and December of 2001. We subsequently worked with several federal agencies studying urban terrorism attack scenarios and subsequent response strategies. RDRP researchers were asked to be members of the White House Office of Homeland Security’s (Predecessor to Department of Homeland Security) Building Air Protection Workgroup (BAPW).

In 2003, RDRP researchers participated in Joint Urban 2003 (External link:, a multi-agency atmospheric dispersion study held in Oklahoma City (sponsors DOE, DHS and DOD). It was conducted to advance knowledge about movement of airborne contaminants, such as those that could be released in a terrorist attack, in and around cities and into and within building interiors. The resulting data (A10-6) is intended to be used to verify and improve computer models that simulate the atmospheric transport of contaminants in urban areas. 

As time continues to elapse since the attacks of 2001, resources for building air protection research within NIOSH have substantially diminished, however, RDRP researchers continue to be involved in an advisory role to other government and public entities.  

Outputs and Transfer

RDRP researchers have authored or contributed to several guidance and consensus policy documents providing recommendations on protecting building occupants from airborne CBRN attack (seven publications A10-7). In addition, RDRP representatives have been involved at various levels (from co-author to member of advisory panel) in development of three DHS/FEMA documents and a training course on building protection from CBR agents.

Initially following the October 2001 attacks, building owners and occupants were primarily interested in measures they could take quickly to protect against an aerosolized CBRN attack.  In response to this demand (and a request by the White House Office of Homeland Security), RDRP researchers collated the findings and recommendations from the Building Vulnerability Assessment Program and combined them with input from the BAPW to develop a NIOSH Guidance Document, “Protecting Building Environments from Airborne Chemical, Biological or Radiological Attacks” (A10-8). Variations/summaries of this document and its recommendations were presented in MMWR, scientific journals, trade magazines and presentations.

As time progressed, stakeholders wanted more information on filtration systems. In response, and again working with the BAPW, RDRP developed its second building air protection document, “Guidance for Filtration and Air-Cleaning Systems to Protect Building Environments from Airborne Chemical, Biological, or Radiological Attack”(A10-9). Variations and summaries of this document and its recommendations were presented in scientific journals, trade magazines and professional presentations. In addition, RDRP researchers coordinated, chaired, and provided presentations at two half-day sessions on Building Protection from CBRN Attacks at the November 2002 Annual (Joint) Conference of The Infrastructure Security Partnership  and The American Society of Civil Engineers.

Recently, RDRP researchers participated in an Expert Panel Working Group, sponsored by the Pittsburgh University Medical Center, Center for Biosecurity. RDRP building air protection documents and recommendations were contributing references to the workgroup discussions. The results of the working group were published in a position paper, “Improving Performance of HVAC Systems to Reduce Exposure to Aerosolized Infectious Agents in Buildings; Recommendations to Reduce Risks Posed by Biological Attacks,” published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science. The authors hope to use the position paper to influence policymakers and code officials into incorporating aspects of the protective recommendations.

 Intermediate Outcomes

The Sloan Foundation funded a grant with the National Institute of Building Sciences to conduct a workshop on the recommendations of the first guidance document. 

NIOSH documents were incorporated into DHS/FEMA design recommendations and training programs on building air protection (A10-10, A10-11, A10-12). 

What’s Ahead

We do not currently plan new research initiatives on this topic, however, a NIOSH priority that is shared by all relevant programs, such as RDRP, is maintenance of emergency response capability and disaster preparedness.