Events such as the anthrax attacks of 2001 and other bioterror plots like the recent ricin-containing letters sent to the White House and the Pentagon highlight the need for biodetection tools that work quickly and rapidly to identify potential biothreats. White powder threats like these are a well-known category of mail-borne threats. They are especially dangerous because of the ease with which large quantities of weaponized spores can be distributed in common envelopes. These spores can then affect large quantities of people who may come in contact with them, potentially resulting in deaths

The Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense. DoD photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force.

Of these mail-borne threats, some are more deadly than others, and the CDC has designated these as Tier 1 select agents. Tier 1 select agents and toxins present a severe threat to public health and safety and have significant potential to lead to mass casualties. They can also lead to devastating effects to the economy and critical infrastructure [1].  Both anthrax and ricin fall into this category. Anthrax spores are easily found in nature and inhalation anthrax is the most serious form that can kill quickly if not immediately treated. Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans that can lead to death in two to three days if small particles are inhaled into the lungs. Early identification of threats and rapid responses can save lives in addition to money and time.

In a 2017 survey, counter-terrorism services company SoBran discovered that while almost 30% of organizations questioned had received a mail threat in the past year, a shocking 64% of mail security professionals stated that they were not fully confident that they could detect chemical or biological threats in the mail. It is critical that those responding to threats like suspicious powders can perform initial screening that works quickly and accurately to best inform public safety actions. To make sure that the best possible short-term tactical decision is made concerning these threats, many organizations use equipment in the field to screen suspicious samples quickly for the presence of potential biothreats.

“While 30% of organizations questioned had received a mail threat in the past year, a shocking 64% of mail security professionals stated that they were not fully confident that they could detect chemical or biological threats in the mail.”

There are many options to screen for biological threats out there, so how does one pick the best detector? It’s hard to decide when performance data is scant and when it is often supplied directly from the manufacturer. When looking for the right detection device for your organization, it’s helpful to look for data that was verified by external, independent assessments.

PathSensors recently participated in such a study. In a 2017 third party evaluation by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a United States Department of Energy national lab, an assessment was performed evaluating a variety of immunoassays for in-field screening for anthrax and ricin. The study tested 28 different biodefense products for the detection of anthrax and ricin and utilized 22 powders that are often encountered by first responders during suspected bioterror events. The evaluation found that the CANARY technology had the most sensitive limit of detection tested for both anthrax and ricin. Anthrax detection was 10,000 times more sensitive than any other immunoassay tested, and CANARY ricin detection was an order of magnitude more sensitive.

With highly sensitive instrumentation that provides biothreat identification in under five minutes, With technology that provides results as to whether threat agents are present or not in under 5 minutes and our instruments’ high sensitivity, we like to think that we’re a pretty good fit not only to prevent bioterror plots but also to detect for pathogens in other sectors, like food safety, agriculture, and emerging disease. But don’t take our word for it, just look at outside data. If you’re interested in learning more about PathSensors’ technology or the labs that have validated us, don’t hesitate to contact us at or call us at 443-557-6150.

[1] “Biosafety/Biocontainment Plan Guidance.” Federal Select Agent Program , CDC,

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