Image: Creative Services Office, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

Last Saturday, the city of Pittsburgh held what they termed a Domestic Preparedness Chemical Weapons Field Exercise, and among the chief technologies they tested was a disposable washcloth that can decontaminate equipment or troops exposed to nerve toxins. The towelette, like a foam developed by the same researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, makes use of enzymes to deactivate organophosphorous agents, such as the well-publicized gases soman and sarin. Worldwide stores of OP nerve agents are estimated to exceed 200,000 tons.

Alan Russell and former student Keith LeJeune focused their work on incorporating the enzyme organophosphorous hydrolase (right) into a polyurethane polymer foam. The result was commercialized by Agentase, LLC, where LeJeune is now CEO, and is soon to be honored by R&D magazine. So far the foam and washcloth appear to be faster, more effective, more convenient and safer than other methods of nerve agent detoxification, which range from incineration to hypochlorite bleaching. And they have another important advantage: "All of the competing processes destroy the 'fingerprint' of the nerve agent involved, so there is no ability to do post-incident forensics," Russell said. "Further, due to the color change when the enzyme is detoxified, there is an instant indicator of any additional nerve agent that needs to be treated."