MINNEAPOLIS -- There will be another terrorist attack and it will be worse than anyone can imagine, Michael Osterholm told more than 300 environmental health experts.
The nationally recognized bioterrorism expert said it could be anthrax, smallpox or an attack on the nation's food and water supply. But Osterholm said the impact could be many times that of the World Trade Center attacks.
It's not the first time Osterholm has warned of another attack. Since last September, he's been outspoken in arguing for better emergency preparedness in case of a biological attack.
On Sunday, in a "Scared Straight!"-type speech at the National Environmental Health Association conference, Osterholm's message took on a sense of urgency. He listed various methods terrorists could use to damage the country's psyche, and how health experts need to step up to the new challenges.
His opinion carries substantial weight in Washington, where he is a special adviser to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Osterholm issued a stern warning: "Don't be surprised."
He said the Sept. 11 attacks made him uncomfortable, but not in the same way as others. "What was making me feel so uneasy was that everybody was surprised. We should have never been surprised. ... You damn well better not be surprised when the next one happens because it could be involving you in a much larger way," he said.
Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a former state epidemiologist, called the five anthrax deaths last fall a "tragic dry run for what could happen tomorrow."
The culprit has already done the hard part, creating the bullet, he said. "Whoever made this powder, made material that was as good as we've ever seen in any biological weapons program ever," Osterholm said.
For example, if the perpetrator placed five tablespoons of anthrax spores in an office building's ventilation system, thousands could be affected before authorities even knew what was going on, he said.
Another well-documented example would be placing botulinum toxin in a tanker truck full of unpasteurized milk and then running it through the system. "You wouldn't have enough body bags in Minnesota to handle that event if it occurred here," Osterholm said. "That kind of situation does exist."
Osterholm is calling for a restructuring of the nation's environmental health system. He said there are more than 4,000 departments around the country and it gets to be too many mouths at the trough for government funds.
"We are long overdue in this country for a major overhaul in our public health system," said Osterholm, author of "Living Terrors," a recently published book about the bioterror threat.
The industry also needs 15,000 new professionals to rejuvenate it with new and better ideas, he said.
"We need some rabble-rousers," Osterholm said. "We need some people willing to shake the system ... We get too comfortable telling ourselves what a good job we're doing."
Craig Gustafson may be reached at cgustafson(at)ap.org
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National Environmental Health Association: http://www.neha.org
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