U.S. Army ECBC tests unknown samples

U.S. Army scientists based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, regularly analyze unknown samples from around the world to determine whether hazardous chemical or biological warfare agents are present.

The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is staffed by 10 chemical agent handlers led by Jennifer Exelby, the acting chief of the Chemical Operations Branch.

"I never would have thought that I would be working with chemical warfare materials," Exelby said. "This is a world that I didn't even know existed until I got the job at ECBC. It's extremely rewarding, and I've learned so much in my years here at ECBC. A book couldn't teach you the things I've learned here."

The scientists working in the ECBC Chemical Transfer Facility screen samples sent in by the U.S. Army and federal agencies. The center contains a biosafety level-2 laboratory where the team handles munitions, as well as liquid and solid samples.

"Every day something new comes up. We'll get a phone call that an unknown item was found on [APG] or will be shipped in from the FBI or a different government agency that [requires] work done that day and results tomorrow. The FBI is one of our major customers, and we support them fully whenever they find a sample," Exelby said.

In addition to identifying samples, Exelby's group provides chemical agents to labs around the United States to serve as references to provide standards for defense research projects.

"Our mission changes daily. One day we'll be synthesizing a chemical agent; another day we'll be packaging agent to send to a customer so they can do their sampling and analysis," Exelby said. "What we are providing our customers is something that says, 'this is HD [sulfur mustard agent] or GB [sarin],' so they can use that chemical to run on their instruments."