US Department of Homeland Security to test Biological Sensors on Red Line

Last week, a public meeting was held at the Cambridge YMCA to discuss an upcoming test of sensors designed to detect a biological weapon release on the MBTA.

The sensors, which were installed by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) roughly 6 months ago, are designed to detect dangerous biological materials that could be used to sicken large numbers of people. In order to ensure that the sensors work properly, DHS believes that they must be tested in a real-world environment. This need has led to the planning of an upcoming series of tests in which  small quantities of a dead bacteria, bacillus subtlis, will be released on the Red Line during the hours in which it is closed to the public.

Public health officials have stressed that this test is 100% safe and I believe that is an important step to guard against a potential crisis in the future.

However, news of this test has caused concern for some residents and MBTA customers. It is, after all, the first test of its kind on the MBTA. Airflow testing has been conducted in the past using substances such as fluorescent particles to track how air moves around the MBTA system, but these tests did not use a biological substance.

The public meeting held last Wednesday served to assuage concerns about the safety of the test and shed light on its development and purpose. Dr. Al DeMaria, a state public health specialist and medical director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Infectious Disease, emphasized that the bacteria used in the test will be dead to ensure that there is no possibility that it could cause an infection in individuals with compromised immune systems. Dr. DeMaria, along with public health officials from Cambridge and Somerville, emphasized that the bacteria used in the test is a food-safe bacteria. In fact, live bacillus subtlis can be sprayed onto fruits and vegetables on the day that they are harvested and that food can be sold as USDA organic produce the next day.

Dr. DeMaria also emphasized the importance of both the biological sensors and the testing that will be conducted to preventing a public health disaster. “Right now people are the detection system,” he said at the meeting. This means that in the event of a harmful biological substance being released on the MBTA, it could take days before the first symptoms appear in those who were exposed. In the meantime, those who have been exposed may unknowingly spread the infection to others. When symptoms finally do appear, it will take additional time for public health officials to narrow the source of the infection to the MBTA and close it. In that time frame, countless others could also be infected with bacteria still present in the subway system.

Having biosensors in the subway could decrease the number of people infected and harmed by the release of a biological agent by as many as ten times. MBTA and public health officials would immediately know the source of contamination and be able to take steps to minimize the spread of infection and properly monitor and treat those who may have been exposed.

The purpose of testing the sensors using a harmless biological substance is to allow the biosensors’ designers to make sure that they are able to detect biological agents under the harsh conditions that exist in a subway system.

The tests are planned for Harvard, Davis, and Porter stations. T customers will be notified one day in advance of the testing by signs posted in these stations.

I understand that the thought of bacteria being deliberately released on the T is somewhat alarming, but I am satisfied that the test procedure has been properly vetted by officials who have a duty to protect the public health above all else. Should you have any questions or concerns about this test, I encourage you to contact my State House office.

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