Cleaning up anthrax

Chemists have developed a new technology that could quickly and inexpensively destroy anthrax spores in terrorist-contaminated buildings and on troops in the field.

Oxidizing agents, such as peroxides, can destroy cells, including bacterial spores, but they work slowly. To dramatically rev up the chemicals’ activity, Colin Horwitz and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh created nontoxic catalysts composed of iron and chemical structures known as tetra-amido macrocyclic ligands.

A spray of sodium carbonate, bicarbonate, and trace amounts of one of the iron-ligand catalysts, followed by a spray of the oxidizing agent tertiary butyl hydroperoxide, killed all spores in tests with the bacterium Bacillus atrophaeus, the scientists reported in Pittsburgh last month at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual meeting (see Pesticide Disposal Goes Green). B. atrophaeus is a standard nonlethal surrogate for anthrax in lab tests.

The complete kill took just 30 minutes, whereas a catalyst-free spray would destroy fewer than half of the spores in that time, the researchers say. “A decontamination time of 15 minutes—the U.S. Army’s gold standard—is within sight,” Horwitz says.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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