Clive Robinson June 11, 2010 7:37 AM

Oh dear oh dear oh dear…

No more “trout pout”

I realy don’t know why people keep talking about such poisons (ricin being another)

They always seem to fail to consider delivery mechanisms that are practical, hard hitting and effectivly unstoppable.

To get even a few hundred deaths is going to be difficult and thus potentialy not a very good weapon from that point alone.

Then when you consider the lack of carnage it’s not going to be that hard hitting.

The question is why have SciAm gone with the story is it a slow news week?

yt June 11, 2010 7:45 AM

“Illegal manufacturers could sell toxin to terrorists or could be subversives themselves.”

This was part of the plot of The Cobweb by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George. The book was set during the first Persian Gulf war, and involved a plot by Iraqi terrorists to manufacture and use the botulin toxin to force Israel into the conflict. I won’t go into any more detail in case anyone hasn’t read it and plans to.

vedaal June 11, 2010 7:50 AM

agree with Clive,

“They always seem to fail to consider delivery mechanisms that are practical, hard hitting and effectivly unstoppable.”

These drugs need to be INJECTED in order to work. They have been used for decades as anesthetic muscle relaxants during operations.

The earliest one of the non-depolarizing class (the class that Botox is in) was Curare, and many studies were done conclusively showing that they were ineffective when taken orally.
(Something that amused the native South American Indians when they heard of the study results, saying that they have been eating animals for generations that were hunted with curare tipped arrows.)

Here is a medical reference:
(skip to the ‘non-depolarizing’ section).

vedaal June 11, 2010 8:14 AM


sorry, my mistake

Botox is from the botulism food poisoning neurotoxin.

I don’t know if it is effective if taken orally.
(I think that the spores containing the bacterium that produce the toxin are poisonous when ingested, but am not sure about the toxin itself.)

Sorry for any misinformation ;-(

BF Skinner June 11, 2010 8:23 AM

@clive “slow news week?”

Month. SciAm hardcopy is monthly.

Since they are a science based journal; they should be answered as all science journal articles are. With a rebuttal letter. They’ll publish it. There have been truly scathing letters in their letters pages before. It’s the first thing I turn to after Now, 50, 100 years.

No One June 11, 2010 8:25 AM

Wait, they’re worried about illicit manufacture of Botox because someone was selling something that /wasn’t/ Botox?

Austringer June 11, 2010 8:44 AM

Botulism toxin will kill you via ingestion. Most of it will be destroyed by your digestive system, but with an LD50 on the order of 10ng/kg most won’t be enough if that dented can of soup has been growing the stuff for the last six months. I have no idea how much you’d have to throw into the city water supply for anyone to notice, but I’m betting counterfit BoTox from the shoddiest operation in the world is not a cheap way to cause mayhem.

Also, it’s not like C. botulinum is super rare or anything. If terrorists wanted botulism toxin, they could get it the old fasioned way – make a bunch of beef stew, can it poorly and then unleashing the results of their sinister home econimics on an unsuspecting population? (If the authorities start rounding up everyone who doesn’t have a pressure cooker, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Nick P June 11, 2010 8:45 AM

@ The Schneier Gang

Alright, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. It’s totally obvious that they are just trying to sell magazines with some fearmongering but there’s some merit to the story. I haven’t verified it’s claims, so I’m going to start with the assumption that they are true just for debate purposes.

They say there are places outside of our jurisdiction producing large amounts of an extremely toxic substance and have a benign, reliable delivery mechanism. I’ve calculated that a combo of shipping delays and massive spam advertising could allow them to poison at least 100 people (conservative) in the first wave. Probably more before a warning got out from investigators. Spamming tons of people into buying drugs and tricking people into accepting poor service are both common skills in the underground and require minimal initial cost. After the attack, we’d get headlines like this one: “Terrorist murder hundreds via mail”, “Terrorist succeed in poisoning beauty products,” and “Bird flu: We’re all going to die!” (oh wait, the last one was Colbert Report…).

As you can see, there’s potential for a large kill count and plenty of terrorizing with relatively little effort. The operation would also pay itself off via the sale of knock-off beauty products leading up to the attack. So, if SciAm’s claims of their capabilities are correct, then the attack is viable and potentially worthwhile to terrorists. It’s also a useful story for another debate: the potential dangers of globalization and the trust issues involved in accepting these kinds of products from foreign jurisdictions.

I put the risk potential of the terrorist threat as extremely low, though. Hence, more magazine space wasted by FUD. And to think SciAm is the one doing it… That just pisses me off as it hurts the credibility in general of “scientific” magazines for the lay person. Science suffers enough in this country without scientific publications pulling this shit. They can feel free to not add to the problem.

vwm June 11, 2010 8:48 AM

@No One, I was wondering about the “fake” part, too.

I guess they are talking about real “Botulinum toxin” being fake “Botox (TM)”, i.e. not made or licensed by Allergan Inc, who owns the trademark.

Simon Bridge June 11, 2010 9:10 AM

Yep, the “fake” in the article means “misuse of trademark”. It may mean manufacture in violation of a patent. There is a lot of scaremongering surrounding this issue – and an international treaty negotiation (ACTA?)

I think that more specific terms should be used to avoid confusion.

The thrust of the SA article is that strong international IP protection is needed to fight terrorism – you’ve all seen that copyright infringement funds terrorism right?

Clive Robinson. June 11, 2010 9:19 AM

For those that want to know a little more,

Have a look at the above bio terorism artical from the journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)

It’s one of the few docs not behind a pay wall.

As I said above it’s the delivery mechanism that is the problem (oh and not killing yourself whilst making it).

Just spraying it on raw food may well not work as the toxins tend to break down compleatly at 60 C.

jml June 11, 2010 9:37 AM

@Austringer – For the record it’s not “dented” cans you need to watch for, it’s bulging cans. Apparently the process that creates botulinus toxin increases the internal pressure in the can.

Dented cans are fairly normal, and safish.


mcb June 11, 2010 9:51 AM

The side-barred “SciAm Perspectives” piece is better than what little I could read of the main article’s preview outside the paywall.

Maybe DHS needs to establish a Department of Movie Plot Threats to counter the nefarious efforts of basement castor bean grinders, botulinum toxin homebrewers, fugu chefs gone wrong, kids playing with mercury, that sort of thing.

For my money the real “terror” in Botox is what the cosmetic surgery addicts (sorry…persons experiencing Body Dismorphic Disorder) look like after they’ve been injected with it. Consider me terrorized.

No One June 11, 2010 9:59 AM

@Austringer, jml — the issue with dented cans is that the dent may have caused a (hidden) puncture which could prevent the can from bulging (since the gas that bulges the can can escape instead).

Eadwacer June 11, 2010 10:33 AM

I can’t find my copy of SA to check, but they use freelance writers to do newsy items like this. Following the authors link in the online version I see that neither one has written anything for SA in the last two years.

Clive Robinson June 11, 2010 11:03 AM

Hmm I’m not sure about either dented or bulging cans…

Traditionaly the proplem was cold packed cooked meats like pate and spreads in jars

The bacteria has two diferent life cycles one aerobic (in oxygen) and anaerobic (not in oxygen). It is the latter that causes the nasty toxins to be produced, the former if I remember correctly just gives fairly ordinary gastric upset if anything.

Back to my earlier point about delivery systems and this applies to all toxins and biological agents.

There are a few basic ways they get into you,

1, By Injection via wounds/punctures in the skin.
2, By Ingestion via food or fluid.
3, By absoption through the skin (uncommon).
4, By Inhalation into the lungs.
5, Via wet membranes in the eyes nose and other bodily orafices.

Within reason 3-5 are broadly similar.

Now a delivery mechanism for (1) injection is kind of up close and personal like an umbrella gun (Gorgy Markov) and is basicaly for assasination.

Now injestion likewise can be up close and personal (Polonium 210 etc) or more general however for mass murder the agent has to survive processing before ingestion the toxins in this case don’t like temps above 60 C or ultrovilot light and other chemicals that would be used to attack bacteria etc.

Most raw foods are processed these days so you would have to sneek into a market / shop and spray/dust the agent onto fruit and salad vegtables etc. This is little better than assassination in terms of body count, AND you have to avoid infecting yourself or getting caught before you have contaminated enough areas (not easy).

Then there is what is conceptually the easist but in practice the hardest to do which is inhilation. Basicaly you suspend the agent in the air in some way and people breath it in. It usually only is effective in moderatly confined spaces such as theaters etc.

There was a well funded and technicaly well resourced japanesse death cult that tried all of these methods and ended up chucking bags of sarin around the metro. Even then they where remarkably in effective.

Now getting back to the toxins guess what there is an antitoxin held by CDC and the onset of the well recognised symptoms to death is long enough such that the 200 or so people that get poisoned via bad jared meat etc every year only 8% die…

So yes it could be used but there is no blood guts or gore to block CNN etc with pictures for the 24Hours or so to get a terrorist message across.

Therefore it is not going to be high on the list in fact other toxins such as ricin from caster beans, nicotien and green potato / rhubarb leaf toxins are easier and safer to produce and are more amenable to delivery for a number of reasons.

Henning Makholm June 11, 2010 11:10 AM

@Nick: “Spamming tons of people into buying drugs and tricking people into accepting poor service are both common skills in the underground and require minimal initial cost.”

Pehaps, but it is not effective as a terrorist strategy.

The terrorist does not want simply to cause some smallish number of unknown people to die. He wants to cause millions upon millions of people to FEAR; the fact that the fear-generating plan will also kill some people is at best a bonus, at worst an externality. Killing people in a way that leaves a simple, practical, unobtrusive way for the common citizen to protect himself from repeat attack (don’t buy anything from spammers) will be ineffective at triggering the “oh shit, that could have been me” reaction in the population.

moo June 11, 2010 11:31 AM


Do terrorists even want to cause widespread fear? It might be true of something like the IRA’s campaigns against Britain, but in most cases their actual motivations seem to be something else. Either they are attacking a specific target for personal or political reasons (e.g. Timothy McVeigh) or they want some kind of international notoriety that will help them recruit more disaffected young men into their ranks at home (e.g. various middle-eastern terrorist groups with Al Qaeda ties).

I agree that the ACTUAL definition of “terrorism” should be something like “criminal acts calculated or intended to cause widespread fear, panic, or terror”. In practice, since September 11th, 2001 the word “terrorism” has become so frequently misused as be nearly meaningless. Its our own politicians and media hacks that are truely terrorizing us, these days — causing widespread fear about hyped-up threats. In the end, not even 0.00001% of us are going to be directly victimized in a terrorist attack in our lifetimes. However, all of us are affected by the fearmongering, the erosion of civil liberties, the censorship and “free speech zones” and illegal NSA wiretapping, the random stop-and-search checkpoints anywhere within 100 miles of the border, the SSSS luggage screening and child-porn-producing body scanners…

Who is more frightening to you, a few dozen bona fide middle-eastern “terrorists” or your own government? I think anyone who trusts the U.S. government is a fool, and would do well to read more history. “Papers, please” does not seem to offend most modern-day Americans nearly as much as it should. The Stasi would have creamed themselves if they saw the wholesale surveillance capabilities that western nations now have, or are developing, to “keep tabs” on their own populations.

Clive Robinson June 11, 2010 12:16 PM

@ moo,

“The Stasi would have creamed themselves if they saw the wholesale surveillance capabilities that western nations now have, or are developing, to “keep tabs” on their own populations”

Yup just as Stalin would have over the CCTV and “education at academy” in the UK.

To be brutaly honest some of the things said about some of these “business person” run Academies in the UK make them sound on par with the Madrassas in Pakistan for the way they are used to “impress on pupils” a “personal view” of the person promising (but often not delivering) the money…

David Thornley June 11, 2010 3:26 PM

That Japanese cult made me feel a lot safer from chemical warfare as used by terrorists. Think of it: military-grade nerve gas released at multiple locations in the Tokyo subway system at rush hour, and only twelve people died. Obviously, this chemical delivery business is harder than some people think.

Nick P June 11, 2010 4:02 PM

@ Henning

Good points, all. However, I think you underestimate the scare factor of such an event once the media spin doctors get a hold of it. It wouldn’t be nearly as strong as a school shooting but I think it and the fallout would be significant. The best part for a would-be terrorist is that they never have to enter the United States to do it.

Sean June 11, 2010 10:49 PM

How quickly we get away from our roots. Botulin toxin is deadly when ingested. Our grandmothers learned this while preserving food to survive the winters. Anything that didn’t seal properly was buried deep enough that the dogs couldn’t get to it. And botulism doesn’t really come from unsealed canned goods, rather from canned food that has been heated enough to drive most of the oxygen out, but not hot enough to kill the clostridium bacteria, thus you could pop the lid on a jar of something seeming to have a good seal and die anyway. That’s why acidity, temperature and time are very important, and why pressure cooking is a really good method as you can essentially autoclave the food to kill anything but BSE…

David Harmon June 12, 2010 7:29 AM

I read the article in print, and found it both alarmist, and oddly protective of the Botox trademark. While LEOs certainly need to stay on top of this sort of thing, I suspect a bit of corporate pushing here.

There are any number of nasty poisons and diseases widely available, but both production and delivery are the real issues. Remember that Japanese cult (better known for its weak Sarin attack) tried and failed with botulinum first!

Jim A. June 14, 2010 7:42 AM

BOtulism TOXin. Which part EVER sounded like a good idea? It has always sounded crazy to me that people were getting this injected into them for merely cosmetic reasons.

BF Skinner June 14, 2010 11:12 AM

The JAMA article is almost 10 years old.

While forgeries in supply chains have all kinds of public safety concerns …

(one estimate I heard says 10 percent of all IT hardware and software in use is counterfiet)

…I would counter with CRS report
Order Code RL32391 Small-scale Terrorist Attacks Using Chemical and Biological Agents: An Assessment Framework and Preliminary Comparisons

“Most experts agree that the probability of a C/B attack on a domestic target remains much smaller than that of a comparably damaging attack with conventional arms.”

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