Updated Friday, January 27, 4:30 PM
In November 2016, while making a purchase of ricin A-chain for training, staff at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness recognized an ongoing discrepancy in the documentation related to the type of ricin being provided. The vendor, a private company that was registered on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Select Agent list, had provided the materials since 2011.
What Are We Doing About It?
Upon learning that a more toxic version of ricin had been received, and out of an abundance of caution, FEMA halted all chemical and biological operations. Any training affected or postponed will be rescheduled pending the completion of our assessment and the implementation of any recommendations for improved processes at the facility, if appropriate.
What Does This Mean for Students?
There is no higher priority than the health and safety of our employees and those we train. We have no indication that any students were harmed. During training, students work with several chemical and biological agents, and use protective measures appropriate for the most dangerous agents. Students wore protective gear that exceeded what would be required for working with ricin slurry.
Students who trained with the agent were in full Level C personal protective equipment at all times when training with the agent, which is commensurate with the level of protection used by the United States military at similar training facilities.
This web page will be updated as additional information becomes available. Students who may have questions can e-mail COBRAQuestions@CDPEmail.dhs.gov
What is the CDP doing regarding the current training schedule?
During the suspension of chemical and biological operations at the COBRATF, the CDP will present a modified version of courses that typically include toxic agent training. Students can contact their CDP Regional Coordinator using information at https://cdp.dhs.gov/contact to discuss questions they may have about their specific class.
I was enrolled to attend a course during suspension of chemical and biological operations at the COBRATF. Is my class cancelled?
Currently, Hands-On Training for CBRNE Incidents (HOT) is postponed until further notice. The courses below are modified and conducted outside the COBRATF toxic agent training facility, and will be fully compliant with graduation requirements. However, they will NOT include toxic agent training.
- Technical Emergency Response Training for CBRNE Incidents (TERT)
- Hazardous Materials Technician for CBRNE Incidents (HT)
- Hazard Assessment and Response Management for CBRNE Incidents (HARM).
When will CDP resume training with biological and chemical agents?
There is no higher priority than the health and safety of our employees and those we train. FEMA is currently undergoing an internal assessment of CDP operations, verifying and cataloging procedures to determine if any enhancements should be made to maintain the highest standard of safety culture. Although this step goes above and beyond protocol, FEMA is cataloging all recommendations from reviews and audits since 2008 and tracking the status of implementation. The internal review team includes senior agency officials deployed to CDP. The assessment team estimates this review may go through March 2017. FEMA will not resume training at COBRATF with live agents until the assessment is complete.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated Friday, January 27, 4:30 PM
The following questions were developed to help answer students’ questions and will be updated as needed.
Why does CDP use dangerous materials in training?
CDP’s Chemical, Ordnance, Biological and Radiological Training Facility offers the only program in the nation featuring civilian training exercises in a true toxic environment, using chemical agents and biological materials. The advanced, hands-on training enables responders to effectively respond to real-world incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological, explosive, or other hazardous materials. Responders serve as the nation’s first line of defense and deserve the highest-quality training available. FEMA’s program called for the use of a less toxic type of ricin — ricin A-chain — that would ensure that students gain full confidence in their ability to detect a biological agent. The ricin A-chain produces the same test results as ricin holotoxin (more toxic) for detection purposes, providing students a realistic training environment.
Is CDP continuing to use the more-toxic form of ricin?
No. CDP temporarily suspended operations with all biological and chemical materials and immediately initiated an inquiry into the situation to review all internal and external protocols.
I was enrolled in a course during suspension of chemical and biological operations at the COBRATF. Is my class cancelled?
During the suspension of chemical and biological operations at the COBRATF, the CDP will present a modified version of courses that normally include toxic agent training. Those courses will be conducted outside the COBRATF toxic agent training facility and will be fully compliant with graduation requirements. Please contact your CDP Regional Coordinator using information at https://cdp.dhs.gov/contact to discuss questions you may have about your specific class.
How much ricin did CDP receive from the vendor since 2011?
Since 2011 CDP ordered nine shipments from the vendor. Exact on-hand amounts varied based on training requirements. At no time did the quantity of ricin meet or exceed the 100 mg Select Agent exclusion as governed by the CDC.
Were students protected against biological materials and toxins?
Yes. There is no indication any students were exposed or harmed during training. During training at the COBRA Training Facility, students work with several chemical and biological agents, and use protective measures appropriate for the most dangerous agents. The protective gear students wore exceeded what would be required for working with ricin slurry.
Students who trained with the agent were in full Level C personal protective equipment at all times when training.
Additional information about mandated procedures can be found in the BMBL (Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories - 5th Ed HHS Publication No. (CDC) 21-1112 Revised December 2009) (PDF).
What company sent the wrong substance?
Following federal regulations, CDP ordered ricin from a non-public vendor listing registered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. CDP staff informed CDC of the error and the CDC is investigating the vendor.
What other types of controls does CDP have in place to ensure the safety of its students?
In addition to ensuring all students use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), CDP also administers a pre- and post-training blood test to anyone going through chemical or biological agent training to measure Red Blood Cell Cholinesterase (RBC ChE) activity. Since the nerve agents CDP uses inhibit RBC ChE activity, a depression in the post- versus pre- blood level would indicated exposure. To date, no staff or student has shown a depression in RBC ChE activity, verifying that no significant exposure to these agents has occurred. It also verifies the PPE was working and fully protected the student and staff during the training activities with GB and VX nerve agents. By association, this test also indicates that no exposure to the biological materials occurred and that the PPE provided full protection.
What is ricin?
Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans. When castor beans are processed to make castor oil, ricin is part of the waste material produced.
How does ricin work?
Information about ricin can be found on the CDC’s website.
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