On September 11, physician Pedro Luis (Pete) Estacio, staff scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), was in New York attending a conference on terrorism with many leaders of the anti-terrorism community of New York City. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, Estacio went first to the ad hoc command center and then joined a search and rescue team that was using special radar equipment developed at LLNL to hunt for survivors. Tragically, there were none.
"I was struck by the extent of the devastation and the realization that the people who did that would have done more if they could," Estacio recalls. "They would have used the most destructive means they could to harm as many people as possible without a second thought. It was sobering to realize that there are people who would deliberately cause such harm to innocent people."
As part of the chemical and biological national security program at LLNL, Estacio helps to develop detection methods and response capacity for bio-terrorism. Since the attacks of September and the early days of the anthrax crisis, Estacio has worked practically non-stop responding to national crises. A member of the California Disaster Medical Action Team (DMAT), he has gone to New York, Washington, and Florida to help monitor potential anthrax exposure risks and to help state laboratories develop new detection methods, improve sampling efficiency, and validate assays.
"I became profoundly interested in this area several years ago when I was asked to consult," he said. "The more I learned, the more worried I became about the safety and welfare of my children and my neighbors, and the more I wanted to be involved in addressing the problems."
Estacio brings a unique combination of education and experience to protecting the nation's health and welfare. With a doctorate in chemistry from UC San Diego, an M.D. degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, a master's degree in public health from UC Berkeley, and years of clinical practice in COEH's Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program at UC San Francisco, he considers combating biological, chemical, and nuclear terrorism to be "a natural offshoot" of problems he has had to address over the years.
People who want to do harm can use materials that are commonly found in the work setting, like chlorine gas, he said, noting that occupational and environmental medicine deals with chemical, biological, and radiation exposure as well as with epidemiology, which is critical to surveillance.
Two other graduates of COEH's Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program play key roles at LLNL in fighting bio-terrorism and responding to national disasters: Medical Director James Seward and clinical physician Steven Burastero, who oversees the medical needs of the crisis teams.
Lack of Preparedness
Estacio believes the biggest threat to our nation is our lack of preparedness. "The infrastructure is not well tuned enough," he said, adding that we should consider chemical, biological, and radiological detection to be just as important—and as normal in everyday life—as fire alarms. "There will be false alarms," he said, calling the occasional false alarm the price we pay for safety. "If that's intolerable, then we'll never be ready," he said. "Ongoing surveillance and response planning is critical to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our community."
Another challenge is improving coordination among government agencies. "It will be next year before we really see if the people who have been put in charge to coordinate all of these 40 to 50 agencies really have any effect. I think they won't, unless they have some kind of financial clout," he said.
Public Health Pay-off
Estacio sees his role as helping to bring a strong scientific foundation to the nation's ability to combat biological threats. He is optimistic that the work being done all over the country to respond to bio-terrorism will "significantly advance public health, not just our response to bio-agent threats but also to natural occurrences like outbreaks of infectious disease."
He hopes to work with COEH faculty members to "do more solid science" in addressing vital questions such as how to make personal protective equipment more safe for biological exposures. "You don't have to work with nasty bugs to prove the principles and advance public health in this important area," he said.
PHOTO: Pedro Luis Estacio