Entries Tagged "poisons"

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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

Third Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest Winner

On April 7—seven days late—I announced the Third Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest:

For this contest, the goal is to create fear. Not just any fear, but a fear that you can alleviate through the sale of your new product idea. There are lots of risks out there, some of them serious, some of them so unlikely that we shouldn’t worry about them, and some of them completely made up. And there are lots of products out there that provide security against those risks.

Your job is to invent one. First, find a risk or create one. It can be a terrorism risk, a criminal risk, a natural-disaster risk, a common household risk—whatever. The weirder the better. Then, create a product that everyone simply has to buy to protect him- or herself from that risk. And finally, write a catalog ad for that product.

[…]

Entries are limited to 150 words … because fear doesn’t require a whole lot of explaining. Tell us why we should be afraid, and why we should buy your product.

On May 7, I posted five semi-finalists out of the 327 blog comments:

Sadly, two of those five was above the 150-word limit. Out of the three remaining, I (with the help of my readers) have chosen a winner.

Presenting, the winner of the Third Annual Movie Plot Threat Contest, Aaron Massey:

Tommy Tester Toothpaste Strips:

Many Americans were shocked to hear the results of the research trials regarding heavy metals and toothpaste conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine, which FDA is only now attempting to confirm. This latest scare comes after hundreds of deaths were linked to toothpaste contaminated with diethylene glycol, a potentially dangerous chemical used in antifreeze.

In light of this continuing health risk, Hamilton Health Labs is proud to announce Tommy Tester Toothpaste Strips! Just apply a dab of toothpaste from a fresh tube onto the strip and let it rest for 3 minutes. It’s just that easy! If the strip turns blue, rest assured that your entire tube of toothpaste is safe. However, if the strip turns pink, dispose of the toothpaste immediately and call the FDA health emergency number at 301-443-1240.

Do not let your family become a statistic when the solution is only $2.95!

Aaron wins, well, nothing really, except the fame and glory afforded by this blog. So give him some fame and glory. Congratulations.

Posted on May 15, 2008 at 6:24 AMView Comments

Chemical Plant Security and Externalities

It’s not true that no one worries about terrorists attacking chemical plants, it’s just that our politics seem to leave us unable to deal with the threat.

Toxins such as ammonia, chlorine, propane and flammable mixtures are constantly being produced or stored in the United States as a result of legitimate industrial processes. Chlorine gas is particularly toxic; in addition to bombing a plant, someone could hijack a chlorine truck or blow up a railcar. Phosgene is even more dangerous. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 7,728 chemical plants in the United States where an act of sabotage—or an accident—could threaten more than 1,000 people. Of those, 106 facilities could threaten more than a million people.

The problem of securing chemical plants against terrorism—or even accidents—is actually simple once you understand the underlying economics. Normally, we leave the security of something up to its owner. The basic idea is that the owner of each chemical plant 1) best understands the risks, and 2) is the one who loses out if security fails. Any outsider—i.e., regulatory agency—is just going to get it wrong. It’s the basic free-market argument, and in most instances it makes a lot of sense.

And chemical plants do have security. They have fences and guards (which might or might not be effective). They have fail-safe mechanisms built into their operations. For example, many large chemical companies use hazardous substances like phosgene, methyl isocyanate and ethylene oxide in their plants, but don’t ship them between locations. They minimize the amounts that are stored as process intermediates. In rare cases of extremely hazardous materials, no significant amounts are stored; instead they are only present in pipes connecting the reactors that make them with the reactors that consume them.

This is all good and right, and what free-market capitalism dictates. The problem is, that isn’t enough.

Any rational chemical plant owner will only secure the plant up to its value to him. That is, if the plant is worth $100 million, then it makes no sense to spend $200 million on securing it. If the odds of it being attacked are less than 1 percent, it doesn’t even make sense to spend $1 million on securing it. The math is more complicated than this, because you have to factor in such things as the reputational cost of having your name splashed all over the media after an incident, but that’s the basic idea.

But to society, the cost of an actual attack can be much, much greater. If a terrorist blows up a particularly toxic plant in the middle of a densely populated area, deaths could be in the tens of thousands and damage could be in the hundreds of millions. Indirect economic damage could be in the billions. The owner of the chlorine plant would pay none of these potential costs.

Sure, the owner could be sued. But he’s not at risk for more than the value of his company, and—in any case—he’d probably be smarter to take the chance. Expensive lawyers can work wonders, courts can be fickle, and the government could step in and bail him out (as it did with airlines after Sept. 11). And a smart company can often protect itself by spinning off the risky asset in a subsidiary company, or selling it off completely. The overall result is that our nation’s chemical plants are secured to a much smaller degree than the risk warrants.

In economics, this is called an externality: an effect of a decision not borne by the decision maker. The decision maker in this case, the chemical plant owner, makes a rational economic decision based on the risks and costs to him.

If we—whether we’re the community living near the chemical plant or the nation as a whole—expect the owner of that plant to spend money for increased security to account for those externalities, we’re going to have to pay for it. And we have three basic ways of doing that. One, we can do it ourselves, stationing government police or military or contractors around the chemical plants. Two, we can pay the owners to do it, subsidizing some sort of security standard.

Or three, we could regulate security and force the companies to pay for it themselves. There’s no free lunch, of course. “We,” as in society, still pay for it in increased prices for whatever the chemical plants are producing, but the cost is paid for by the product’s consumers rather than by taxpayers in general.

Personally, I don’t care very much which method is chosen: that’s politics, not security. But I do know we’ll have to pick one, or some combination of the three. Asking nicely just isn’t going to work. It can’t; not in a free-market economy.

We taxpayers pay for airport security, and not the airlines, because the overall effects of a terrorist attack against an airline are far greater than their effects to the particular airline targeted. We pay for port security because the effects of bringing a large weapon into the country are far greater than the concerns of the port’s owners. And we should pay for chemical plant, train and truck security for exactly the same reasons.

Thankfully, after years of hoping the chemical industry would do it on its own, this April the Department of Homeland Security started regulating chemical plant security. Some complain that the regulations don’t go far enough, but at least it’s a start.

This essay previously appeared on Wired.com.

Posted on October 18, 2007 at 7:26 AMView Comments

Another Movie-Plot Threat: Poison Gumballs

This is too funny:

Fear that terrorists could poison children has led three Dover aldermen to begin inspecting gumball machines.

They’ve surveyed 103 machines in the Morris County town and expect to report their results on New Year’s Day.

Aldermen Frank Poolas, Jack Delaney and Michael Picciallo have found 100 unlicensed machines filled with gumballs, jawbreakers and other candies. The three feel they’re ripe for terrorists to lace with poisoned products.

Here’s another article.

This is simply too stupid for words.

Posted on October 12, 2007 at 6:40 AMView Comments

Latest Terrorist False Alarm: Chili Peppers

In London:

Three streets were closed and people evacuated from the area as the search was carried out. After locating the source at about 7pm, emergency crews smashed their way into the Thai Cottage restaurant in D’Arblay Street only to emerge with a 9lb pot of smouldering dried chillies.

Baffled chef Chalemchai Tangjariyapoon, who had been cooking a spicy dip, was amazed to find himself at the centre of the terror scare.

“We only cook it once a year—it’s a spicy dip with extra hot chillies that are deliberately burned,” he said.

“To us it smells like burned chilli and it is slightly unusual. I can understand why people who weren’t Thai would not know what it was but it doesn’t smell like chemicals. I’m a bit confused.”

Another story.

Were this the U.S., that restaurant would be charged with terrorism, or creating a fake bomb, or anything to make the authorities feel better. On the other hand, at least the cook wasn’t shot.

EDITED TO ADD (10/4): Common sense:

The police spokesman said no arrests were made in the case.

“As far as I’m aware it’s not a criminal offense to cook very strong chili,” he said.

EDITED TO ADD (10/11): The BBC has a recipe, in case you need to create your own chemical weapon scare.

Posted on October 3, 2007 at 10:28 AMView Comments

Inventorying "Dangerous" Chemicals for the DHS

The DHS wants universities to inventory a long list of chemicals:

Unusual paranoia over chemical attack in the US takes many forms. It can be seen in a recent piece of trouble from the Department of Homeland Security, a long list of “chemicals of interest” it wishes to require all university settings to inventory.

“Academic institutions across the country claim they will have to spend countless hours and scarce resources on documenting very small amounts of chemicals in many different labs that are scattered across sometimes sprawling campuses,” reported a recent Chemical & Engineering News, the publication of the American Chemical Society.

“For 104 chemicals on the list, the threshold is ‘any amount.'”

[…]

If one has a little bit of background in chemical weapons synthesis, one can see DHS is possessed by the idea that terrorists might storm into universities and plunder chem labs for precursors to nerve gases.

Interesting stuff about specific chemicals in the article.

Posted on June 8, 2007 at 6:12 AMView Comments

In Praise of Security Theater

While visiting some friends and their new baby in the hospital last week, I noticed an interesting bit of security. To prevent infant abduction, all babies had RFID tags attached to their ankles by a bracelet. There are sensors on the doors to the maternity ward, and if a baby passes through, an alarm goes off.

Infant abduction is rare, but still a risk. In the last 22 years, about 233 such abductions have occurred in the United States. About 4 million babies are born each year, which means that a baby has a 1-in-375,000 chance of being abducted. Compare this with the infant mortality rate in the U.S.—one in 145—and it becomes clear where the real risks are.

And the 1-in-375,000 chance is not today’s risk. Infant abduction rates have plummeted in recent years, mostly due to education programs at hospitals.

So why are hospitals bothering with RFID bracelets? I think they’re primarily to reassure the mothers. Many times during my friends’ stay at the hospital the doctors had to take the baby away for this or that test. Millions of years of evolution have forged a strong bond between new parents and new baby; the RFID bracelets are a low-cost way to ensure that the parents are more relaxed when their baby was out of their sight.

Security is both a reality and a feeling. The reality of security is mathematical, based on the probability of different risks and the effectiveness of different countermeasures. We know the infant abduction rates and how well the bracelets reduce those rates. We also know the cost of the bracelets, and can thus calculate whether they’re a cost-effective security measure or not. But security is also a feeling, based on individual psychological reactions to both the risks and the countermeasures. And the two things are different: You can be secure even though you don’t feel secure, and you can feel secure even though you’re not really secure.

The RFID bracelets are what I’ve come to call security theater: security primarily designed to make you feel more secure. I’ve regularly maligned security theater as a waste, but it’s not always, and not entirely, so.

It’s only a waste if you consider the reality of security exclusively. There are times when people feel less secure than they actually are. In those cases—like with mothers and the threat of baby abduction—a palliative countermeasure that primarily increases the feeling of security is just what the doctor ordered.

Tamper-resistant packaging for over-the-counter drugs started to appear in the 1980s, in response to some highly publicized poisonings. As a countermeasure, it’s largely security theater. It’s easy to poison many foods and over-the-counter medicines right through the seal—with a syringe, for example—or to open and replace the seal well enough that an unwary consumer won’t detect it. But in the 1980s, there was a widespread fear of random poisonings in over-the-counter medicines, and tamper-resistant packaging brought people’s perceptions of the risk more in line with the actual risk: minimal.

Much of the post-9/11 security can be explained by this as well. I’ve often talked about the National Guard troops in airports right after the terrorist attacks, and the fact that they had no bullets in their guns. As a security countermeasure, it made little sense for them to be there. They didn’t have the training necessary to improve security at the checkpoints, or even to be another useful pair of eyes. But to reassure a jittery public that it’s OK to fly, it was probably the right thing to do.

Security theater also addresses the ancillary risk of lawsuits. Lawsuits are ultimately decided by juries, or settled because of the threat of jury trial, and juries are going to decide cases based on their feelings as well as the facts. It’s not enough for a hospital to point to infant abduction rates and rightly claim that RFID bracelets aren’t worth it; the other side is going to put a weeping mother on the stand and make an emotional argument. In these cases, security theater provides real security against the legal threat.

Like real security, security theater has a cost. It can cost money, time, concentration, freedoms and so on. It can come at the cost of reducing the things we can do. Most of the time security theater is a bad trade-off, because the costs far outweigh the benefits. But there are instances when a little bit of security theater makes sense.

We make smart security trade-offs—and by this I mean trade-offs for genuine security—when our feeling of security closely matches the reality. When the two are out of alignment, we get security wrong. Security theater is no substitute for security reality, but, used correctly, security theater can be a way of raising our feeling of security so that it more closely matches the reality of security. It makes us feel more secure handing our babies off to doctors and nurses, buying over-the-counter medicines, and flying on airplanes—closer to how secure we should feel if we had all the facts and did the math correctly.

Of course, too much security theater and our feeling of security becomes greater than the reality, which is also bad. And others—politicians, corporations and so on—can use security theater to make us feel more secure without doing the hard work of actually making us secure. That’s the usual way security theater is used, and why I so often malign it.

But to write off security theater completely is to ignore the feeling of security. And as long as people are involved with security trade-offs, that’s never going to work.

This essay appeared on Wired.com, and is dedicated to my new godson, Nicholas Quillen Perry.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into Portuguese.

Posted on January 25, 2007 at 5:50 AMView Comments

Jelly As a Terrorist Risk

Continued terrorist paranoia causes yet another ridiculous story:

A pile of jelly1 left by a road in Germany caused a major security alert after it was mistaken for toxic waste.

A large area near the town of Halle was cordoned off after a “flabby red, orange and green substance” was found by the road, Reuters reported.

Fire officers in protective suits spent two hours inspecting the substance before concluding it was jelly.

Years ago, someone would have just cleaned up the mess. Today, we call in firemen in HAZMAT suits.

1 “Jelly” in Europe is Jell-O in America. What Americans call “jelly,” Europeans call “jam.”

Posted on October 10, 2006 at 1:28 PMView Comments

Pupillometer

Does this EyeCheck device sound like anything other than snake oil:

The device looks like binoculars, and in seconds it scans an individuals pupils to detect a problem.

“They’ll be able to tell if they’re on drugs, and what kind, whether marijuana, cocaine, or alcohol. Or even in the case of a tractor trailer driver, is he too tired to drive his rig?” said Ohio County Sheriff Tom Burgoyne.

The device can also detect abnormalities from chemical and biological effects, as well as natural disasters.

Here’s the company. The device is called a pupillometer, and “uses patented technologies to deliver reliable pupil measurements in less than five minutes for the detection of drugs and fatigue.” And despite what the article implied, the device doesn’t do this at a distance.

I’m not impressed with the research, but this is not my area of expertise. Anyone?

Posted on September 18, 2006 at 1:39 PMView Comments

New Directions in Chemical Warfare

From New Scientist:

The Pentagon considered developing a host of non-lethal chemical weapons that would disrupt discipline and morale among enemy troops, newly declassified documents reveal.

Most bizarre among the plans was one for the development of an “aphrodisiac” chemical weapon that would make enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other. Provoking widespread homosexual behaviour among troops would cause a “distasteful but completely non-lethal” blow to morale, the proposal says.

Other ideas included chemical weapons that attract swarms of enraged wasps or angry rats to troop positions, making them uninhabitable. Another was to develop a chemical that caused “severe and lasting halitosis”, making it easy to identify guerrillas trying to blend in with civilians. There was also the idea of making troops’ skin unbearably sensitive to sunlight.

Technology always gets better; it never gets worse. There will be a time, probably in our lifetimes, when weapons like these will be real.

Posted on June 9, 2006 at 1:33 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.