What is the bioterrorism act?

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., made a lasting impression on the people of the United States and the rest of the world. On that day, terrorists armed with box cutters hijacked commercial airliners and flew them into public workplaces and government buildings. These attacks injected a sense of fear and vulnerability that most Americans rarely face.

Shortly a­fter these attacks, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news agencies and U.S. senators. Rumors that terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden had plans to poison U.S. water and food supplies quickly surfaced. Bioterrorism had become a real threat to national security.

Gerard Cerles/Getty Images
President George "Dubya" Bush signed the Bioterrorism Act into law in 2002.

The U.S. government changed the way it protects its citizens. One change was the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, or Bioterrorism Act (BTA). President George W. Bush signed the BTA into law on June 12, 2002. The purpose of the BTA is to improve the government's ability to prevent, prepare for and respond to any bioterrorism incidents and other national health emergencies.

The BTA is made up of four parts:

  • Title I addresses how emergency rooms prepare for possible attack, including access to vaccines and medicine stockpiles.
  • Title II sets up a registration program for people who handle toxins and biological agents.
  • Title III protects the U.S. food and drug supply by requiring tougher inspection methods and closely watching what comes into the country.
  • Title IV tweaks the Safe Drinking Water Act to help protect the public water supply.

To increase security, several federal agencies work together under the BTA:

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
  • Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
In this article, we'll go over the four sections of the BTA, discuss which part each agency plays and look into some of the penalties for non-compliance.

Bioterrorism Act: Titles I and II

Title I One of the major parts of a successful public health emergency plan is a quick and easy way to get the word out. If anthrax spores are detected in the air in Seattle, Wash., then health care providers in Miami, Fla., should know about it as quickly as possible. A bioterrorist attack could happen anywhere and spread in a very short time. One of the main goals of Title I is to make sure that these people can reach others if an attack occurs.

Title I also addresses the preparation of local hospital emergency rooms to deal with a biological attack. First-aid classes have formed. Grants have provided funds to add staff and supplies to the ERs. Quarantine procedures have been set up in case of an outbreak. In order to be able to contain outbreaks quickly, the BTA also provides automatic emergency medical waivers for uninsured people or those without Medicare or Medicaid.

Another important part of Title I is its establishment of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). The SNS took the place of the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile (NPS) which was established in 1999 by the department of HHS. The new stockpile is a stash of emergency vaccines, medicines and medical supplies available in case of an emergency. The SNS can also be tapped if a natural disaster occurs.

The BTA has also set up "push packages" in guarded warehouses all across the country. These packages contain emergency vaccines and treatments for the most likely biological agents and can be distributed to any location in the United States within 12 hours of being ordered by the CDC.

Garry Gay/Getty Images
­Let's hope the Strategic National Stockpile doesn't look like this.
Title II One of the challenges in preventing bioterrorism is that many of the biological agents that could be used in an attack are often studied by universities, hospitals and other research facilities. Title II ensures that the government knows the identity of everyone that works with these agents. APHIS makes sure registration standards and procedures are followed. Every research lab, university, and medicine and vaccine manufacturer must register with the APHIS office. This way, the government knows which facility or company is handling these toxins and agents.

In addition to facility registration, the BTA requires that all individuals working with these agents and toxins register as well. The CDC is in charge of this registration. The BTA requires that all research, manufacturing and shipping employees register before possessing an agent.

Safety officers at research facilities are in charge of assisting employees with the approval process. It can be quite lengthy -- it can take up to three months for FBI approval. The process includes fingerprinting and a detailed background check. Any person found possessing of these toxins o­r agents without going through this process can face both criminal and civil charges. This is not an empty threat -- faculty and graduate students all over the United States have been prosecuted for breaking this law.

On the next page, we'll look into Title III of the BTA.

Bioterrorism Act: Title III

Protecting the food and drug supply of the United States is vital to public safety. The bird flu and mad cow disease scares in recent years showed just how vulnerable a nation can be if its livestock is tainted. The same can be said for produce. Salmonella outbreaks from bad tomatoes have been big news in 2008. The FDA runs Title III in four major areas:

  • Registration of food facilities: this includes every company that processes, manufactures and packs, distributes, receives or holds food consumed by humans and animals.
  • Prior notice of imported food: advance notice must be given to the FDA for any food shipment entering the country.
  • Establishment and maintenance of records: All companies or people, who process, manufacture and pack, distribute, receive or hold food must keep records that identify where the food came from and where it's going.
  • Administrative detention: this allows the FDA and the CBP to seize any shipme­nt they decide threatens public health.

    Mad cow
    Michel Porro/Getty Images
    Workers test for mad cow disease.

Registration of food processing facilities helps keep the food supply safe. Knowing what and where products are being shipped goes a long way toward tracking and containing contaminated food. Online registration is free and available around-the-clock. If a facility can't do so online, it can also register by mail. There are a few organizations and facilities that don't have to register:

  • Farms
  • Retail food services
  • Restaurants
  • Nonprofit organizations that prepare or distribute food
  • Fishing boats that don't process their catch
  • Facilities regulated entirely by the USDA

Prior to Title III's implementation in October 2003, the federal government projected that more than 400,000 facilities around the world would need to register. Noncompliance results in civil or criminal charges, and the facility is shut down immediately.

Before the BTA, any incoming food shipments were checked and verified when they reached the U.S. border. The FDA must receive prior notice of these shipments. This gives the FDA time to go over the information before the food reaches the border. It also gives the FDA a chance to move staff around to ensure that a thorough inspection can be made on larger shipments. If the FDA isn't notified by noon the day before a shipment arrives, the food is held at the border or port of entry until an inspection can take place. Shippers are also required to submit their cargo online.

Title III also requires that all food shipment records are kept for at least two years. Many companies already had these procedures in place, but the time requirement makes sure that every shipment could be traced for a longer period of time if necessary.

The final provision of Title III of the BTA is pretty simple. If the FDA or CBP has any credible evidence that a food shipment is contaminated or a threat to public health, they can seize the shipment. They can then hold it in "administrative detention" at a secure facility for up to 30 days. The food is inspected more thoroughly there until it is labeled safe for consumption.

We'll take a look at Title IV of the BTA on the following page.

Bioterrorism Act: Title IV

Safe, clean drinking water is as basic a human need as oxygen. We cannot survive without it. After the anthrax scare that followed Sept. 11, rumors hit the Internet that terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden planned to contaminate portions of the U.S. water supply. The government saw a vulnerable spot there and used the BTA to help keep the water supply safe.

Prior to Sept. 11, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) made sure that all tap water was free of contaminants and safe to drink. Title IV of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 adds several provisions to the SDWA. These are known as the Drinking Water Security and Safety Amendments.

Irrigation system
Tony Sweet/Getty Images
Contaminating the water supply could also poison vegetable crops.

One of these provisions stated that any community water system (CWS) that serves more than 3,300 people must complete a one-time assessment of its vulnerability to attack by June 2004. These assessments were sent to the EPA administrator in charge of that CWS, and are safeguarded so that the assessments can't fall into the wrong hands. Additionally, the CWS administrative team was in charge of updating or writing new emergency response plans based on the vulnerability assessments. If you live in a rural area and worried that you may fall under the 3,300 person limit, fear not. Larger CWSs council and assist the smaller ones that don't have to report to the EPA.

The second provision requires the EPA administrator for each CWS to focus on prevention, detection and response. Part of this involves looking at the current methods of detection and making them better. Each administrator also focuses on how to best stop and contain contaminated water flow to keep it from reaching the public. The administrators also develop classes and training exercises for CWS employees.

The final SDWA provision requires administrators to look at ways a terrorist might disrupt or contaminate a water supply and then take measures to prevent them. When creating these scenarios, the administrator must consider the security of:

  • Storage and distribution facilities
  • Water pipes
  • Water collection facilities
  • Pretreatment and treatment plants
  • Electric and computer systems

There are many ways to keep these facilities safe. Physical barriers like fences and gates are simple, but effective. Prescreening employees and keeping accurate employee records provides security from within. The administrator might also change facility locks and make sure manholes and fire hydrants are tamper-resistant.

To make sure everyone knows the government means business, strict new laws were passed that carry large fines and prison terms. If any employee gives out information about the vulnerability assessments, he or she can go to jail for up to one year. The punishment for tampering with public water systems jumped from a five-year maximum prison term to 20 years. The civil penalty went from a $50,000 fine to $1,000,000.

For more information on terrorism and what's being done to stop it, please visit the links on the following page.

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More Great Links


  • "B­ioterrorism and Food Safety." jhsphj.edu, 2008. (7/11/2008)
  • "Protecting the United States from bioterrorism." agr.wa.gov, 2008. (7/11/2008)
  • Questions and Answers About the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism
  • Questions Concerning Select Agents." ncsu.edu, 2008. (7/11/2008)
  • "Strategic National Stockpile." cdc.gov, 2008. (7/11/2008)
  • "The Bioterrorism Act of 2002." fda.gov, 2008. (7/11/2008)
  • "." Cbp.gov, 2008. (7/11/2008)
  • "The list of HHS and USDA Select Agents and Toxins effective October 20th, 2005" selectagents.gov, 2008. (7/11/2008)
  • Chilakamarri, Varu. "A New Instrument in National Security: The Legislative Attempt to Combat Terrorism via the Safe Drinking Water Act." Georgetown Law Journal, April 2003. (7/11/2008)
  • Preparedness Response Act of 2002." aphis.usda.gov, 2008. (7/11/2008) http://www.aphis.usda.gov/lpa/pubs/fsheet_faq_notice/faq_ahbioterr.pdf