ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is now one of only two laboratories in the United States that is permitted to analyze OPCW biomedical samples recovered from sites where there is a suspected use of chemical warfare agents.

The ECBC Forensic Analytical Center earned an "A" grade from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the organization's first biomedical proficiency test.

The OPCW is an independent and multinational organization, which was established to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention that bans the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. In 2013, the OPCW earned the Nobel Peace Prize for overseeing the removal of Syria's chemical warfare agent stockpile.

As a part of its responsibility to protect the CWC, the OPCW has designated laboratories worldwide that are equipped and ready to analyze samples such as soil, water and blood from suspected contaminated sites. The ECBC Forensic Analytical Center is one of only 19 labs designated worldwide by the OPCW for environmental sample analysis and one of only 17 labs designated worldwide by the OPCW for biomedical sample analysis to confirm the presence of nerve agents and other chemical weapons.

MAKING THE MARK

ECBC's Forensic Analytical Center was the first U.S. laboratory to become a designated OPCW laboratory. It was given that status by the director general of the OPCW in 1996. To maintain accreditation, all OPCW laboratories must adhere to strict administrative guidelines and successfully complete and maintain a three-year rolling average of at least two "As" and one "B."

The center's scientists and technicians conduct highly sophisticated chemical and forensic analysis for monitoring the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as analysis of samples associated with possible terrorist attacks or breaches of security.

Historically, the OPCW has focused on environmental samples such as soil or water for proficiency tests. In 2009, to address the need for capability to provide proof of human exposure to chemical agent, OPCW started to conduct international practice exercises using biomedical samples. In 2016, after five practice exercises, the OPCW administered its first biomedical proficiency test, in which ECBC participated.

Five scientists from the Forensic Analytical Center worked on the biomedical proficiency test with other members of the branch supporting the scientists as needed with data and report review. Dr. Joy Ginter, E. Alex Jestel, Dr. Kevin Shefcheck, Tim Allan, Lisa Walden and Amanda Dubbs had 15 days from the time they received the samples to complete their preparation, analysis and reporting.

"The test scenario stated that mustard exposure was suspected and blood and urine had been collected from victims. This allowed us to focus our sample preparation and analysis on looking for biomarkers of mustard exposure," Ginter said.

The biomedical proficiency test presented new challenges to the team. In the biomedical tests, there are smaller amounts of available sample. Also, biomedical samples tend to require more preparation time, and are more complex.

"The spiking levels for the biomedical test are typically two to three orders of magnitude lower than the environmental samples, so we are measuring chemicals in the low part per billion level," said Jestel. "The analysis of biomedical samples is much more focused since a specific agent is suspected based on either previous environmental analysis and/or symptoms of exposure. For environmental samples we run numerous analyses to look for an extensive target list, while for biomedical we are only doing one or two analyses, but each one can take a couple days."

Of the 26 laboratories from 22 countries, 17 received an "A" grade, including the other U.S. OPCW designated lab, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

"Because of this designation we are officially allowed to receive biomedical samples from OPCW which demonstrates we are both technically and logistically capable of doing the analysis and preparing a legally defensibly report," Jestel said. "It's a feather in our cap, but it also ensures that U.S. diplomats and the Department of Defense have internationally recognized capability for analysis of both biomedical and environmental samples in a legally defensible manner."

PREPARED TO SERVE

The Forensic Analytical Center completed the environmental proficiency test shortly after the biomedical and served as this year's evaluators. It has received an "A" and continue its partnership and status as an OPCW-designated laboratory that can receive both environmental and biomedical samples. Due in part to the center's proficient and accurate work, they are prepared to accept and analyze samples from scenarios such as the situation in Syria in 2013. If a similar incident occurs, ECBC is equipped to analyze both environmental and biomedical samples recovered from the scene, helping the nation and the world combat chemical warfare agents.

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The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.