False alarms plague DHS BioWatch air samplers

A billion dollar government system for detecting biological attacks, known as BioWatch, has been plagued with multiple false alarms since its deployment in 2003, a new report has revealed.

While the system was deployed in cities across the country to detect anthrax, tularemia, plague, smallpox and other deadly pathogens, it has produced dozens of false alarms in Phoenix, San Diego, St. Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay and elsewhere. As a result, BioWatch may not be dependable in case of a real attack, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"I can't find anyone in my peer group who believes in BioWatch," Ned Calonge, a former chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "The only times it goes off, it's wrong. I just think it's a colossal waste of money. It's a stupid program."

The system initially came about after the 2003 State of the Union address by President George W. Bush. Army Major General Stephen Reeves, whose office was responsible for getting BioWatch up and running, said that it was apparent from the start that the system was unreliable.

"In the senior-level discussions, the issue of efficacy really wasn't on the table," Reeves said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "It was get it done, tell the president we did good, tell the nation that they're protected...I thought at the time this was good PR, to calm the nation down. But an effective system? Not a chance."

While new technology, called Generation 3, would potentially make BioWatch more reliable and cheaper to operate, field and lab tests have shown the novel technology still produces false readings.

Through 2008, federal agencies documented 56 BioWatch false alarms, most of which were never disclosed to the public. While BioWatch officials insist that the false alarms have been beneficial, many public health officials think otherwise.

"A Homeland Security or national security pipe dream became our nightmare," David M. Engelthaler, the former bioterrorism coordinator of Arizona, said, according to the Los Angeles Times.