Gas Peddled

Exaggerating the Chemical and Biological Terrorism Threat

This is not to say smaller quantities of nerve agent could not again be used, à la Aum Shinrikyo, with roughly similar fatal results. But manufacturing these agents remains fraught with difficulty and hazard. It is not a matter of simply sloshing a few different reagents together in an open bucket. Wherever there has been industrial-scale production of pure chemical weapons, there have been deaths and chemical-administered cripplings in the workforce. A German scientist investigating insecticides in 1936 discovered tabun, and nearly killed himself and his assistant in the process. As a practical matter, the Wehrmacht also seemed to have found tabun too dangerous for its soldiers to use in spraying. During secret mass manufacture of it, more workers, even in alleged protective gear, died. In Britain in 1918, a plant producing 20 tons of mustard gas a day caused approximately 1400 illnesses—predominantly severe chemical burns of one type or another.

It also becomes clear after reviewing the ugly history of extremely poisonous "gases" that routine protective gear does not work particularly well. Nerve agents, even small amounts, pass through exposed skin and worm around seams. By the time symptoms of poisoning appear, it is too late for the donning of respirators. Mustard, another volatile liquid, inflicts ferocious burns on any exposed area. The current bull market in gas masks is nothing, then, but a cruel waste of money. They might work against tear gas, pepper sprays, smoke, or a wandering skunk, I suppose.


Another related fear, of course, is of assault by biological weapon. Prior to 9-11, mainstream news coverage on the potential for biological terrorist attack was overwhelmingly characterized by the underlying theme that it is an elementary process: A common assertion (originally appearing in Joseph D. Douglass's and Neil C. Livingstone's 1987 America the Vulnerable) was that biological weaponeering is "about as complicated as manufacturing beer, and less dangerous than refining heroin." Much of this belief seems to have been a consequence of a campaign in 1996 by the Clinton administration's secretary of defense, William Cohen, to popularize the idea that the menace of bioterrorism was imminent, inevitable, and in the hands of just about anyone who fancied it. In a famous press conference, Cohen displayed a bag of sugar, indicating that its volume was all that was needed for a weapon of mass destruction. The Cohen philosophy was quickly adopted by both parties, and by many academic sources used by journalists and policy makers.

Milton Leitenberg, one academic expert on bioterrorism, noted in a 2000 paper entitled "An Assessment of the Biological Weapons Threat to the United States" that "Cohen [had made] a practice of determined exaggeration and apprehension the core of the U.S. government's current policy on public information regarding the potential of the use of biological weapons."

Paradoxically—and perhaps because of an unspoken acknowledgment that not one of the articles, books, or seminars featuring Tom Clancy-like scenarios of chemical, biological, and limited nuclear attack stumbled upon the catastrophe that actually wound up transpiring on 9-11—pronouncements have become more circumspect. The message now is that biological terrorism is possible but not easy. But defining how not easy is not easy.

My doctoral project involved purifying and analyzing a particular enzyme produced by a microbe responsible for a food-borne human disease. Vibrio vulnificus causes about 95 cases of illness in the United States per year, usually as a result of eating raw contaminated oysters. Although an uncommon disease that most people never have to worry about, one-third of those who get it die a nasty and brutish death.

The work was not nearly as dangerous as working with microorganisms that cause plague and anthrax, diseases frequently associated with potential terrorist attack. But it was not without risk. Achieving pure culture in large quantity, and storing, stabilizing, and separating the microbe's products—all tasks similar to those that would be used in the preliminary stages of producing a usable biological weapon—were fairly difficult. The work took four years. It was simple to screw up production runs. Weeks of labor often went down the drain when it was determined that some unknown contaminant or some manner of spoilage had ruined yields.

Currently, the four bad actors mentioned the most in connection with bioterrorism are anthrax, pneumonic plague, botulism, and (a special case) smallpox.


Anthrax was first transformed into a modern weapon during World War II. The disease is caused by a bacillus that forms hardy spores. The spores were manufactured in large quantity and loaded into bombs. Testing of the weapon killed sheep and contaminated an island off the north of Scotland. During the Cold War, the U.S. produced it until discontinuation of the program during the Nixon administration. The Soviets secretly manufactured astonishing quantities, thousands of tons, for loading onto ballistic missiles. The aim was to produce an apocalyptic number of casualties from inhalation of a spore dust spread out over target cities. This manner of dispersal produces an illness called pneumonic anthrax—which, while not contagious from individual to individual, is almost always fatal if not treated aggressively with antibiotics upon suspicion of infection.

There is no particularly reliable information from which to judge the difficulty of producing an anthrax dust. One worst-case estimate of casualties caused by a theoretical suspension of anthrax spores over Washington, D.C., presumed up to 3 million casualties. This seems ludicrous. In 1979, a Soviet plant cultivating anthrax spores suffered a leak that vented the bacteria into the surrounding town of Sverdlovsk for several hours. Sixty-eight people are known to have died. The Aum Shinrikyo terrorist group attempted to spread anthrax and failed, although the failure was not often portrayed as such by the media.

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