Fall/Winter 2005 Table of Contents
Research in Focus
A Plan to Use Daily Street Cleaning to
Detect Early Signs of a Bioterrorism Attack

Dr. Page Caufield, Professor of Cariology and Comprehensive Care, and Dr. Deepak Saxena, Adjunct Associate Professor of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology
A street sweeper travels near New York’s Grand Central Station, collecting cigarette butts, candy wrappers — and anthrax spores.

This scenario is envisioned by two infectious disease experts and members of NYUCD’s Bioterrorism and Catastrophe Response Task Force, Drs. Page Caufield and Deepak Saxena, in a plan to make detecting biological, radiological, and chemical agents a part of everyday street cleaning in New York City. Developed in conjunction with Dean Michael C. Alfano, their plan calls for city officials to monitor all five boroughs daily for the dispersion of pathogens that settle in the streets, using the existing fleet of street-sweeping machines to collect samples during their morning cleaning operations and deliver them to sanitation substations, where pathogens would be isolated from other debris and sent to a city laboratory for analysis by late afternoon the same day. Private sanitation companies could also adopt the plan to monitor a more limited area.

The plan would supplement the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Biowatch air-monitoring system, which relies on fans placed atop buildings and in other elevated locations to trap airborne particles in New York and at least 30 other metropolitan areas.

"NYUCD’s plan uses routine sanitation operations for covert biosurveillance, offering a method for pinpointing the site of a bioterrorist attack by comparing samples from different street-cleaning grid patterns,” said Dr. Caufield.

The NYUCD plan also includes:

  • a technique to rapidly separate pathogens from other debris at sanitation substations so that a pure sample can be delivered to a city health department laboratory for analysis;
  • a method for creating a unique DNA fingerprint of each sample in the laboratory, so that authorities can rapidly pinpoint contamination levels, decontaminate affected areas, assess the speed and course of the pathogen’s spread, and alert people exposed to seek immediate treatment.
Drs. Caufield and Saxena expect to begin testing the plan early in 2006 with a harmless surrogate for anthrax that Dr. Saxena derived from a bacterium used in agricultural pest control. NYUCD subsequently will offer the plan to officials in New York and other cities. Patents for the plan are pending.