Gas Peddled

Exaggerating the Chemical and Biological Terrorism Threat

As I worked toward a doctorate in microbial chemistry in the '80s, I regularly used organophosphate compounds. A 50-dollar word, but for the layman in today's atmosphere of terror and fear, it means chemical nerve poisons like sarin and tabun.

I used nerve agents as blockers of microbial chemical reactions that interfered with other processes we were more interested in analyzing. These extreme poisons have a long-established role in biochemical research, and can be bought in small quantity from manufacturers of finely purified chemicals. One we used constantly—DFP, or di-isopropyl fluorophosphate, a relative of sarin—sells at about $200 for a milliliter of liquid in a sealed glass tube.

There was always a sense of some danger, and my stomach curdled and clenched when it came time to take the ampoule from storage and measure out even infinitesimal quantities for the day's work. Initially, I would self-consciously check for dimming of vision, said by the product's safety sheet to be an early sign of exposure. Was the clock on the wall a little hard to read? Obviously I'm still here, so no mistakes were made.

However, even with practical experience, I would have never wanted to be in a position where it was necessary to handle or manufacture multi-gallon quantities of such materials. With the stone-cold reality of Murphy's Law always at hand, spills take on the proportion of catastrophe.

How often has a small amount of gasoline dribbled out the end of the hose onto your hand or the pavement while you were refilling the SUV—even when you paid attention to what you were doing and were calm and unrushed? Try to picture "fueling" an airplane or handheld spray tank with something so poisonous that the same types of spills stand a good chance of chemically maiming you in a couple of minutes.

This is not to say there is no likelihood that the bombers of 9-11 or allied terrorists would not be willing to try manufacturing or buying such poisons and then mounting an attack with them. The level of risk, however, compared to the smuggling of box-cutting knives onto an airline, is greater. While Mohamed Atta's attempts to get involved with crop dusting could conceivably point toward a secondary-attack method, they could just as well show that the terrorists found those objectives more dangerous, and with less potential for a big payoff, than kamikaze hijacking. While the reputation of nerve agents as poisons is deserved, their application as practical instruments of mass killing, particularly when applied to terrorism, has been overrated.

Much of this is due to the popular coverage of the Aum Shinrikyo cult's terrorist attacks in the Tokyo subway in 1995. The mainstream media has regularly treated this event as an example of a weapon of mass destruction—but unfortunate as it was, the subway attack did not kill a mass. As best as can be determined, the cultists used 11 containers of sarin, which were rolled under seats and punctured to start the attack. Leakage of the poison, a liquid, resulted in the injuring of several hundred and the death of 12. An earlier surprise attack in 1994 undertaken in a different area killed seven and injured a couple hundred. However, one common figure published in connection with the Tokyo incident, that 5500 were injured, appears to be a myth derived from the number of people panicked into reporting to hospitals. If the objective was to create a reputation, a panic, and the arrest and conviction of all its leaders, the cult's attack was a ripping success. If the aim was to kill a lot of people while eluding detection, it failed. Eleven containers of poison, approximately one death per volume, does not qualify as a weapon of mass destruction. Vests of dynamite do more damage.

Military men seem to have grasped the limitations of poison "gas"—a misnomer in the case of nerve agents, which are liquids —early in the history of its use. Chemical weapons such as chlorine, phosgene, arsenical smokes, and mustard were used extensively in World War I, and while they were initially regarded as wonder weapons because of a dryly inhumane association with technical innovation and modernity, their practical disadvantages compared to similar tonnages of high explosives and whirling metals were quickly revealed.

On April 22, 1915, the Germans attacked the British near Ypres by opening 6000 cylinders containing 160 tons of chlorine, a prosaic but hazardous industrial gas, in front of enemy trenches. The surprise was total. Five thousand men died and 10,000 were wounded. Gas continued to be used in multi-ton masses throughout the conflict, and in the final German offensive of 1918, the Allies in the Cambrai Salient in France were relentlessly shelled with mustard. In a two-week period, the British and French, even though they were prepared for gas attacks after years of trench warfare, saw around 13,000 men go into the field hospitals with chemical wounds. The poison ran like "rain water in the streets," Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman wrote in A Higher Form of Killing. But to achieve this, the Germans expended 170,000 gas shells—probably well beyond any contemporary terrorist capability.

Saddam Hussein used his air force on March 16, 1988, to bomb the Kurd town of Halabja with poison gases—an incident in which 4000 civilians were said to have perished. The casualty figures are bleak and macabre, but the amount of chemical weapon necessary to rack up significant mortality has remained constant and correspondingly high over decades. Chemical arsenals were premised on the drenching of enemy forces with large volumes delivered by artillery barrage, missile assault, or bombing.

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