Thursday, February 22, 2007

PRACTICAL MATTERS VIS-A-VIS CHLORINE: Hard to use but scary

Your friendly neighborhood GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow is an expert with regards to chlorine cylinder handling. This knowledge is convenient while reading of recent insurgent attacks in Iraq using industrial cylinders of the halogen bundled with explosives. (Read this and learn, American troops! It is a better briefing than any you will get in country.)

During summers off from undergraduate work at Albright College in Pennsylvania, DD managed the Pine Grove Community Swimming Pool, a half-a-million gallon volume sanitized by chlorine from industrial cylinders.

Adequate chlorination required the exchange of cylinders every 10 days.

Cylinders would be manhandled from storage, the new ones exchanged for the exhausted. Connection was made to a gas regulator and bubbler which released the element into the water spillway connecting the pool's pump house and the main inlet into its concrete basin. Damaging or shattering the valve at the top of the cylinder was not a significant problem. Even if wide open, it did not release the element in sufficient density or velocity to create a danger to many.

Chlorine cylinders were delivered by the industrial chemical supplier, Manley-Regan, of Middletown, PA. They were ferried around Schuylkill County to swimming pools, chained to the sides of flatbed trucks. The cylinders were very robust. They had to withstand falling off trucks and collisions. As a consequence, their handlers were laissez-faire, infrequently tossing the cylinders off the back of the loader onto the asphalt of parking lots.

The chlorine cylinders dug up the asphalt in the lot at the Pine Grove pool and I complained. So the distributor drove the truck onto the grass nearer the swimming pool, tossed them off the back, where they only dug divets in the lawn. Thanks! It was important to keep your feet out of the way.

Anyway, the lesson here is that it takes a bit of effort to blast open a standard chlorine cylinder, enough effort to make the actual explosive needed to burst the tank more of a danger than the actual amount of halogen contained within it.

Still, one can't turn up one's nose at chlorine.

Chlorine is immediately sensed in the corners of the eyes and by the Mark I nose. It is extremely active, as any halogen is, and burns sensitive tissues, but not skin, immediately. Because of this it is not a particularly effective poison gas.

People who get a whiff of chlorine perceive it well before immediately lethal concentrations arrive and move quickly away, if they can. Bursts and puffs of chlorine cause halogen irritation to the mucous membranes and conjunctiva of the eyes fairly rapidly, something workers at the community swimming pool under my watch learned through experience.

So, as a practical matter, use of chlorine gas as a weapon is contingent upon quick delivery of extremely large volumes.

In Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman's A Higher Form of Killing, an older book on chemical warfare, chlorine's use by Germany om the western front in 1915 is detailed.

"German pioneers [opened] the valves of 6,000 cylinders spread out along a four mile front," the authors write. "The breeze stirred again, and 160 tons [of chlorine], five feet high and hugging the ground began to roll toward the Allied trenches. Chemical warfare had begun."

One immediately sees the insurgents in Iraq aren't close to achieving the chlorine densities used in full-on chemical warfare. Indeed, the great amounts needed to wage such a war quickly had WWI combatants looking for different, more deadly, poison gases. Chlorine was bad but things could be made much worse and they were.

The issues are handled with aplomb over at the new Danger Room blog and at el Reg, both noting the impact is still mainly psychological.

Dick Destiny defecated upon a lobbying company built from refugees from the Department of Homeland Security and their lack of knowledge on various chemical weapons, including chlorine, last year -- here. And if you go here you'll read about another alleged government expert telling a crowd of rubes they can make a terror weapon out of it by using bleach. Back in the day we had a word for such people and that word was: Idiot. (Search page for "Sidell.")

Additional information is furnished here on alleged homeland security guru, Richard Falkenrath, who became possessed in a mission to protect America from the dangerous release of gases like chlorine. Read the fine print and you'll spy mention of mass releases of chlorine from rail cars in Graniteville, South Carolina, and Macdona, Texas, resulting in nine and three dead, respectively.

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