CDP decontamination training

In this file photo, first responders work through a Hazmat Decon station at the Center for Domestic Preparedness. 

Thousands of first responders who have trained with the live biological toxin ricin at a federal training facility in Anniston since 2011 did so using the lethal version of the agent, instead of the non-lethal version federal officials thought was being used, according to those officials in an announcement Friday.

Dorian Chapman, spokesman for the Center for Domestic Preparedness, in a message to The Star on Friday wrote that last week the agency learned that the CDP’s Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological unit, known as the COBRA facility, in Anniston was using a toxic form of ricin “rather than the non-toxic form that was ordered.”

Chapman wrote that no CDP personnel or students at the COBRA facility “have been exposed or harmed by any toxins” used in the facility.

“As soon as the CDP determined the toxic version of ricin was in use, we ceased training with biological materials in order to evaluate the vendor as well as the CDP’s safety measures and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for receiving and handling biological materials,” Chapman wrote.

Civilian first responders train at the COBRA facility using the live nerve agents GB and VX and biological toxins such as ricin and anthrax. The training is meant to teach them how to detect and handle the deadly substances. It’s the only facility in the U.S. that trains first responders with live agents.

The ricin problem dates back to 2011, when the CDP began using live biological materials, Chapman wrote. Prior to 2011 the facility trained in the detection of chemical warfare agents such as GB, known as sarin, and VX nerve agent.

Since 2011 “all 11 CDP orders of non-toxic ricin had been erroneously filled with a toxic version” Chapman wrote, adding that the CDP has suspended use of biological materials at the facility as the agency investigates the matter further.

“The safety of our students and staff has always been, and will remain, our top priority,” Chapman wrote. “The CDP’s strict protocols and procedures for the handling of chemical and biological toxins meet or exceed the protocols and procedures for safe handling, and as a result no CDP personnel or students have been exposed.”

The COBRA facility is overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, through the CDP.

Ricin, a poisonous compound extracted from castor beans, kills cells in the body by blocking the production of protein in them, potentially leading to death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The effects of a ricin poisoning depend on how a person was exposed, whether by inhalation, ingestion or by touch.

Ricin is unlikely to be absorbed through the skin, according to the CDC, but if a person touches the agent then eats food or touches their mouth they could ingest the poison. There is no antidote.

About 800 lethal doses of live chemical agents are dispersed by workers in “Hot Zones” inside the facility in a common training scenario, officials have told The Star in the past. Workers and students inside those hot zones wear protective gear from head-to-toe.

It was unclear Friday where the CDP gets the ricin used at the COBRA facility.

Further questions to the CDP on Friday were unanswered as of press time.

The U.S. Army Material Command supplies chemical agents to the facility and conducts oversight and reviews of the Anniston facility every 24 months, but it does not supply the CDP with biological materials such as ricin, according to Army spokeswoman Kimberly Hanson, in a message to The Star on Oct 28.

“The last chemical agent shipment to COBRA was August 2014,” Hanson wrote. “Accountability of the agent is monitored through periodic consumption reports, semiannual inventories, and onsite inventories during reviews.”

Jason McDonald, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Federal Select Agent Program, in a message to The Star on Friday wrote that he was unaware of any problem at the COBRA facility in Anniston. The CDC, through the Select Agent Program, oversees the possession, use and transfer of biological agents and toxins.

McDonald declined to answer further questions, writing that the “CDC is prohibited by law from disclosing the names or locations of entities registered with the Federal Select Agent Program.”

Questions to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Friday about the mixup at the COBRA facility were unanswered as of press time Friday.  

Completed in 1987, the COBRA facility in McClellan was operated by the Army until the former fort closed in 1998 and the facility was transferred to the federal government. 

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.