Saturday, January 03, 2009

BIOTERROR FIZZIES: Old US patent envisions bombing lakes with poisons and carbon dioxide pellets

"It is an object of this invention to provide an improvement in the art of toxic warfare ... wherein bodies of water are the targets and wherein it is desired to effectively contaminate same," states a patent from 1953 authored by Jack De Ment, acting for the old US Atomic Energy Commission. (See here at Cryptome.Org.)

Now, in case you're wondering why the US Patent Office is distributing how-to's to potential terrorists, your host implores: "Rein it in."

Some patents are great. Many are ridiculous. The one under discussion falls much closer to the latter than the former in a straight line between the two.

In 1953, the US was worried about all out war with the Soviet Union. Anything which could be made into a weapon, no matter how cracked the idea, probably was considered.

"Methods of Dispersing Materials in Water" was a patent which broadly suggests some people considered bombing lakes and reservoirs with toxic materials embedded in carbon dioxide pellets a potentially practical idea.

More succinctly, think of this as a patent for something your host will call the "Alka-Seltzer attack."

The author of the patent reasons that a primary obstacle to dispersion of poisons in water is the efficiency and quickness of such dispersion. This is, however, only one of the problems facing someone who might want to contaminate a water supply. (We'll get to the other big obstacle in a minute.)

The author reasons, possibly with the aid of some empirical data from simple experiments done for the AEC, that gasogenic substances -- stuff which will bubble underwater -- distribute compounds faster than just dropping the compounds into water.

De Ment is particularly interested in carbon dioxide -- dry ice -- and other simple substances which will generate CO2 in water.

Our boffin envisioned embedding poisons (he specifically mentions botox -- the most poisonous protein complex known to man) in pellets or bricks of dry ice. The botox-tainted dry ice bricks were to be dropped out of an airplane, scattered over a lake, where they would sink to the bottom and begin bubbling. Think of all those corny science-fiction scenes in movies you've seen where the lab is filled with beakers and flasks of bubbling liquids. (That's Hollywood's dry ice, dye and water jockeys hard at work.)

The vigorous bubbling quickly distributes the poison through the water, tainting the Commie lake.

Well, not so fast. The Alka-Selter botox bomb probably never made it into production.

As far as it goes, bubbling is one way to boost efficiency's in chemical dispersion in water.

As manager of the Pine Grove Community Swimming Pool in the Seventies, your host worked with a variety of ways in which chlorine was used to sanitize a half a million gallon swimming pool.

The best way of doing it was through the pool's built in pumping infrastructure, which included a two-story pump house, underground pipes, a high velocity spillway and a chlorine bubbler. Water was pumped to the top of the pumphouse and dropped through a coal filter on its way to the basement of the structure. In the basement of the structure, which was -above- the level of the swimming pool, gravity continued to pull it downward over a spillway and into a 16-inch pipe which contained the chlorine bubbler, regulated from a mechanism to which chlorine cylinders were attached.

The chlorine was injected under pressure and reasonable velocity into the water stream, which was then distributed around the perimeter of the swimming pool where the sanitized water entered the concrete cavity. Generally, if the pool had below optimal levels of chlorine in the morning, addition of more through the bubbler brought concentrations up to optimal levels only after anywhere from 2-4 hours, depending on how warm it was. (The sun and heat worked against the process, causing a faster neutralization and loss of the gas once it was dissolved in the pool.)

Other methods of chlorine dissemination involved dumping bleaching powder into the spillway. In this way, one could give the gas injection a bit of a boost.

Chlorine, of course, is not disturbed by vigorous bubbling and mixing. But it is not a protein complex, like botox.

Botox, a complex protein produced by Clostridium botulinum, is far from simple, like chlorine. And while carbon dioxide bricks can be had in bulk, production of quantities of botox beyond what would find in naturally occurring cases of botulism is a bit different than just going to Air Products and purchasing cylinders of chlorine.

Now, DD will rely on a previous discussion about the handling of botox and lethality, conducted for el Reg two years ago.

"For additional perspective the Centers for Disease Control was contacted," it reads.

"This resulted in being put in touch with with Charles Millard at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which supports the CDC in this matter. Millard is a botulinum toxin expert and also part of the interagency working group on the poison.

"While fourteen thousand lethal doses [of botox] sounds like an awful number, and one imagines the toxin reconstituted from the delivery vial and deposited with great malice into a vat of dressing at a serve-yourself bar, the feat is perhaps not that cut and dried or obviously practical. [Physically], it is a vanishingly small amount, the high number of lethal doses being a theoretical number."

[Why 14,000 doses? Because it's a big number, a militarily interesting one. And it also happens to be the theoretical amount in one research vial of botox which misuse of resulted in a number of near fatal botulism cases discussed in the Reg article.]

"However, as Millard explained, the actual amount for lethality in humans is not an exact science and extremely small amounts of highly purified protein complexes, which is what botulinum toxin is, tend to be unstable when put into much larger volumes [of water]. In other words, they denature, degrade and disappear. Millard indicated the vial contained much less practical material than the stated number of theoretical lethal doses."

In 1953, the author of the patent had no inkling of this. What it boils -- heh-heh -- down to, is this: Bombing a lake with protein toxins in dry ice bricks was almost probably never a good way to do anything except make a spectacle.

Finally, the biggest obstacle to contaminating water supplies is volume. Anything that isn't magically superpoisonous and instantly distributed must be used in large and very noticeable quantities.

Examples: Exxon Valdez, the contamination of rivers with barrels and barrels of cyanide downstream from incompetent and dangerous mass gold mining operations, the man-made addition of rotenone, an insecticide, to Lake Davis in California a number of years ago. (Two formulations of rotenone were used by the US government: 64,000 pounds of a powder and about 16,000 gallons of a liquid, for the poisoning of the lake and killing off of northern pike, considered -- perhaps stupidly -- to be an invasive pest fish. See here. With such volumes, you're throwing stealth,
speed of delivery and efficiency totally out the window.)

De Ment also entertained the possibility of using sodium metal to disperse poisons in lakes. Suitably large-sized chunks of sodium explode when plunged into water.

Radioactive waste was also considered for use. As for that, one doesn't even need to go to the trouble of using fizzy stuff, just the production of a gigantic amount of it ala Chernobyl or Hanford.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came across this on cryptome. Really interesting read, can't believe more people haven't commented on it. The cold war era did create a lot of crackpot weapon designs,

2:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed.
And huge fortunes yielded from some really goofy ideas, too.

For example, the B-2 Stealth bomber, perhaps the most expensive weapon in the world, is useless against snipers and suicide bombers.

As Saint Murphy said: "You can lead a horse to water, but you'll never teach him to use toilet paper."

11:10 AM  

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