Entries Tagged "biological warfare"

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Attacking the Food Supply

Terrorists attacking our food supply is a nightmare scenario that has been given new life during the recent swine flu outbreak. Although it seems easy to do, understanding why it hasn’t happened is important. G.R. Dalziel, at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has written a report chronicling every confirmed case of malicious food contamination in the world since 1950: 365 cases in all, plus 126 additional unconfirmed cases. What he found demonstrates the reality of terrorist food attacks.

It turns out 72% of the food poisonings occurred at the end of the food supply chain — at home — typically by a friend, relative, neighbour, or co-worker trying to kill or injure a specific person. A characteristic example is Heather Mook of York, who in 2007 tried to kill her husband by putting rat poison in his spaghetti.

Most of these cases resulted in fewer than five casualties — Mook only injured her husband in this incident — although 16% resulted in five or more. Of the 19 cases that claimed 10 or more lives, four involved serial killers operating over several years.

Another 23% of cases occurred at the retail or food service level. A 1998 incident in Japan, where someone put arsenic in a curry sold at a summer festival, killing four and hospitalising 63, is a typical example. Only 11% of these incidents resulted in 100 or more casualties, while 44% resulted in none.

There are very few incidents of people contaminating the actual food supply. People deliberately contaminated a water supply seven times, resulting in three deaths. There is only one example of someone deliberately contaminating a crop before harvest — in Australia in 2006 — and the crops were recalled before they could be sold. And in the three cases of someone deliberately contaminating food during packaging and distribution, including a 2005 case in the UK where glass and needles were baked into loaves of bread, no one died or was injured.

This isn’t the stuff of bioterrorism. The closest example occurred in 1984 in the US, where members of a religious group known as the Rajneeshees contaminated several restaurant salad bars with salmonella enterica typhimurium, sickening 751, hospitalising 45, but killing no one. In fact, no one knew this was malicious until a year later, when one of the perpetrators admitted it.

Almost all of the food contaminations used conventional poisons such as cyanide, drain cleaner, mercury, or weed killer. There were nine incidents of biological agents, including salmon­ella, ricin, and faecal matter, and eight cases of radiological matter. The 2006 London poisoning of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210 in his tea is an example of the latter.

And that assassination illustrates the real risk of malicious food poisonings. What is discussed in terrorist training manuals, and what the CIA is worried about, is the use of contaminated food in targeted assassinations. The quantities involved for mass poisonings are too great, the nature of the food supply too vast and the details of any plot too complicated and unpredictable to be a real threat. That becomes crystal clear as you read the details of the different incidents: it’s hard to kill one person, and very hard to kill dozens. Hundreds, thousands: it’s just not going to happen any time soon. The fear of bioterror is much greater, and the panic from any bioterror scare will injure more people, than bioterrorism itself.

Far more dangerous are accidental contaminations due to negligent industry practices, such as the 2006 spinach E coli and, more recently, peanut salmonella contaminations in the US, the 2008 milk contaminations in China, and the BSE-infected beef from earlier this decade. And the systems we have in place to deal with these accidental contaminations also work to mitigate any intentional ones.

In 2004, the then US secretary of health and human services, Tommy Thompson, said on Fox News: “I cannot understand why terrorists have not attacked our food supply. Because it is so easy to do.”

Guess what? It’s not at all easy to do.

This essay previously appeared in The Guardian.

Posted on May 14, 2009 at 6:24 AMView Comments

The Risk of Anthrax

Some reality to counter the hype.

The Bottom Line

While there has been much consternation and alarm-raising over the potential for widespread proliferation of biological weapons and the possible use of such weapons on a massive scale, there are significant constraints on such designs. The current dearth of substantial biological weapons programs and arsenals by governments worldwide, and the even smaller number of cases in which systems were actually used, seems to belie — or at least bring into question — the intense concern about such programs.

While we would like to believe that countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia have halted their biological warfare programs for some noble ideological or humanitarian reason, we simply can’t. If biological weapons were in practice as effective as some would lead us to believe, these states would surely maintain stockpiles of them, just as they have maintained their nuclear weapons programs. Biological weapons programs were abandoned because they proved to be not as effective as advertised and because conventional munitions proved to provide more bang for the buck.

Posted on August 13, 2008 at 2:29 PMView Comments

New Technology to Detect Chemical, Biological, and Explosive Agents

Interesting:

“We have found we can potentially detect an incredibly small quantity of material, as small as one dust-speck-sized particle weighing one trillionth of a gram, on an individual’s clothing or baggage,” Farquar said. “This is important because if a person handles explosives they are likely to have some remaining residue.”

Using a system they call Single-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometry, or SPAMS, the Livermore scientists already have developed and tested the technology for detecting chemical and biological agents.

The new research expands SPAMS’ capabilities to include several types of explosives that have been used worldwide in improvised explosive devices and other terrorist attacks.

“SPAMS is a sensitive, specific, potential option for airport and baggage screening,” Farquar said. “The ability of the SPAMS technology to determine the identity of a single particle could be a valuable asset when the target analyte is dangerous in small quantities or has no legal reason for being present in an environment.”

Posted on June 23, 2008 at 6:07 AMView Comments

Terrorists Attacking via Air Conditioners

From the DHS and the FBI, a great movie-plot threat:

It is possible to introduce chemical or biological agents directly into external air-intakes or internal air-circulation systems. Unless the building has carbon filters (or the equivalent), volatile chemical agents would not be stopped and would enter the building untenanted.

[…]

Other scenarios involve the use of helicopters equipped with agricultural spraying equipment to discharge large chemical or biological contaminant clouds near external or roof-mounted air intakes or ventilators.

[…]

Terrorists have considered producing a radiological dispersal device (RDD) by burning or exploding a source or sources containing radioactive material. If large quantities of easily dispersed radioactive material were released or exploded near an HVAC intake or circulation system, it is possible that targeted individuals could suffer some adverse health effects.

I’m sure glad my government is working on this stuff.

Posted on May 16, 2008 at 12:03 PMView Comments

Terrorist Insects

Yet another movie-plot threat to worry about:

One of the cheapest and most destructive weapons available to terrorists today is also one of the most widely ignored: insects. These biological warfare agents are easy to sneak across borders, reproduce quickly, spread disease, and devastate crops in an indefatigable march. Our stores of grain could be ravaged by the khapra beetle, cotton and soybean fields decimated by the Egyptian cottonworm, citrus and cotton crops stripped by the false codling moth, and vegetable fields pummeled by the cabbage moth. The costs could easily escalate into the billions of dollars, and the resulting disruption of our food supply – and our sense of well-being – could be devastating. Yet the government focuses on shoe bombs and anthrax while virtually ignoring insect insurgents.

[…]

Seeing the potential, military strategists have been keen to conscript insects during war. In World War II, the French and Germans pursued the mass production and dispersion of Colorado potato beetles to destroy enemy food supplies. The Japanese military, meanwhile, sprayed disease-carrying fleas from low-flying airplanes and dropped bombs packed with flies and a slurry of cholera bacteria. The Japanese killed at least 440,000 Chinese using plague-infected fleas and cholera-coated flies, according to a 2002 international symposium of historians.

During the Cold War, the US military planned a facility to produce 100 million yellow-fever-infected mosquitoes a month, produced an “Entomological Warfare Target Analysis” of vulnerable sites in the Soviet Union and among its allies, and tested the dispersal and biting capacity of (uninfected) mosquitoes by secretly dropping the insects over American cities.

Posted on October 24, 2007 at 6:14 AMView Comments

Stupidest Terrorist Overreaction Yet?

What? Are the police taking stupid pills?

Two people who sprinkled flour in a parking lot to mark a trail for their offbeat running club inadvertently caused a bioterrorism scare and now face a felony charge.

The competition is fierce, but I think this is a winner.

What bothers me most about the news coverage is that there isn’t even a suggestion that the authorities’ response might have been out of line.

Mayoral spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the city plans to seek restitution from the Salchows, who are due in court Sept. 14.

“You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know,” she said. “It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious. We’re thankful it wasn’t, but there were a lot of resources that went into figuring that out.”

Translation: We screwed up, and we want someone to pay for our mistake.

Posted on August 27, 2007 at 2:34 PMView Comments

Bioterrorism Detection Systems and False Alarms

Interesting.

It took several days for New Jersey officials to establish that the alert wasn’t the beginning of a deadly bioterror attack, but had been triggered by someone’s allergic reaction to a smallpox vaccine at a local military facility. This false alert came from the government-funded computer program, Biosense. The complex program, which culls electronic health data from 350 of the nation’s urban hospitals as well as veterans’ hospitals and defense department facilities, comes after a string of costly, and never fully realized computer ventures before it. But three years into its development, with a price tag of around $230 million (on top of millions more spent on unsuccessful systems before it), it is unclear as to exactly what the program can accomplish.

EDITED TO ADD (7/2): The article is in Google’s cache.

Posted on July 2, 2007 at 7:54 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.