Gas Peddled


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.

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.

Yersinia pestis is the microbe that causes bubonic plague, a blood disease that localizes in the lymph nodes, contracted when people are bitten by infected fleas. Since the dropping of fleas on a city seemed an impractical method of spreading plague, Cold War scientists in the Soviet Union decided to apply the model of anthrax to it, producing large quantities of dried bacteria. Inhaled Yersinia pestis causes pneumonic plague, a respiratory disease. Untreated cases generally result in death, and while the pneumonic form can be spread from person to person, the infection hazard is not thought to be extreme. The current thinking is that a bioterrorist would attempt to spread Yersinia pestis as an aerosol, and the same caveats apply as in the anthrax discussion.

Botulism, a food-borne illness caused by a family of toxins produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, is also often mentioned as a potential agent of bioterror. Botulinum toxin gets a lot of press for being more lethal than sarin, but using it as a weapon for killing thousands—as opposed to a poison in potential assassinations or isolated cold-food contaminations—is problematic. The pessimists insist it can be suspended in air as a lethal dust or aerosol, but no reliable information suggests this is possible and practical.

Smallpox, a devastating viral illness, was eliminated as a naturally occurring disease in 1980 by the World Health Organization through vaccination and infection control. The only remaining stocks were in the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets, in what must be considered a crime against humanity, used their stock in a secret bioweapons project with the logic that it would make a good strategic weapon precisely because it had otherwise been eliminated. The man who is said to have helped create the weapon now works as a consultant on bioterror defense in northern Virginia. Is this a cause for outrage? Apparently not.

No one seems to know with any reliability whether, as the Soviet Union fell apart, it was able to maintain control of its stock of smallpox. There is no information on the effectiveness of the weapon or its reproducibility. There is no cure for smallpox, although the United States and other nations maintain aging stocks of vaccine of unknown reliability. Control of a sudden outbreak of smallpox would revolve around quick recognition, administration of an effective vaccine (which might be logistically difficult), and strict isolation of the infected. Speculating on casualties is merely depressing. Smallpox would be a truly suicidal weapon, since a reemergence of the virus, if it spread internationally, would certainly be devastating to third world nations. Terrorists would scarcely be immune.