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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

City testing air for poison attack

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

The heightened national terror alert prompted Honolulu officials to begin random air sampling Monday to detect any airborne biological weapons released at large public events.

Honolulu City & County Emergency Medical Services Assistant Chief Donnie Gates said yesterday his staff had done the first sampling Monday evening at "Sunset On the Beach" in Waikiki. Gates could not reveal where and when his staff would conduct future tests.

"We are in the process now of getting a list of all major city and state functions within the city and county of Honolulu, and we are selecting certain sites where there is a large number of people," Gates said. "And we are taking our air sampling equipment and we are testing for the possibility of the release of a biological agent.

"It is not that we are anticipating (an attack), but we want to make sure we protect our people."

After Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the national alert level Sunday to code orange, Hawai'i Gov. Linda Lingle followed suit with the state threat level. State and city agencies have responded with additional security programs.

Gates said his staff had conducted similar tests in the past, but an increase in the threat level automatically changes the kinds of events they focus on.

"If (the threat) is low, we won't go and test for everything that happens in Honolulu," he said. "The rule of thumb is usually the amount of people."

He could not say what agents they were testing for, only that they were all "biological." Gates said his staff would conduct the tests "for as long as necessary."

Maj. Charles Anthony, civil defense spokesman, would not confirm the existence of a list of major public events. "If there was such a list, it would not be the sort of thing we would talk about publicly," he said.

But he said such testing helps protect the public. "If you detect something, it is certainly not too late," Anthony said. "Anthrax is not a biological agent that kills you on contact. It takes days to work its way through your system, and there are measures you can take."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8012.