Toxic Agents Easily Bought Online, Pose Public Threat

Monday, 18 Nov 2013 05:17 PM

By David Alan Coia

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When the editor of a health newsletter opened a cardboard box containing a bubble-wrapped surplus lab instrument shipped from an online university outlet, he said he was "freaked out" to find a highly toxic chemical sloshing inside.

NaturalNews.com Editor Michael Adams said the $100 instrument he purchased online from Michigan State University last month was leaking a pound of toxic mercury.

"If someone like me were a terrorist, they could have bought that instrument, they could have had mercury and could have then modified it — and weaponized it — through some very simple chemical processes," Adams told Newsmax.

"They could have made it into a very lethal mercury-based acid, or they could have dropped it into a municipal water supply — poisoning the water supply," Adams said. "It was ridiculously easy to get."

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Such a toxic chemical in the hands of a terrorist would pose a significant threat to the public.

Only 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury is needed to contaminate a 25-acre lake to the point where fish are unsafe to eat. Prolonged exposure to mercury can cause a variety of symptoms, including loss of memory, and nerve and kidney damage.

Mercury is even more toxic when mixed with other substances, and can result in irreversible central nervous system damage.

With the growth of online sales for biological and chemical agents, concerns are rising about whether such toxic agents can fall into the wrong hands.

One concern stems from the worldwide increase in the production of botulinum neurotoxin (BoNT), the pure form of the active ingredient in Botox, which is used in cosmetic procedures to remove wrinkles.

Laboratories worldwide — including in China, Chechnya, and India — are producing what has been called "the deadliest substance known to science" and offer sales over the Internet of BoNT.

The chemical is grouped with the world's most lethal potential biological weapons agents, and has the same status as the pathogens that cause smallpox, anthrax and plague. Nine-tenths of one-millionth of a gram of BoNT can be lethal to an adult if inhaled.

"This biowarfare potential puts the existence of illicit laboratories churning out the toxin and of shady distributors selling worldwide through the Internet into a more disturbing light than most pharmaceutical fraud," said scientists Ken Coleman and Raymond A. Zalinskas, writing in Scientific American about the threat posed by the rapid growth in production of the Botox ingredient.

While just a few years ago, terrorists attempting an attack with BoNT would have had to manufacture their own toxin, but now they "would be able to purchase the toxin needed for their plan from an anonymous Internet source," Coleman and Zalinskas wrote.

They pointed out that "making the toxin requires no exotic equipment and only a moderate expertise in biotechnology" and that the instructions for doing so have been widely available for the last 50 years. They said their 2010 report "documented a substantial increase in Internet vendors in the past two years."

FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said in an email exchange with Newsmax that "there are definitely cases" involving Internet suppliers of chemical agents, "but all the ones we can think of are ongoing pending litigation, and so we would not be able to comment on them."

One highly visible case was that of a Saudi national, Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, 22, who was convicted on Aug. 22, 2012, of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction after seeking online purchases of phenol, an ingredient that can be used in the manufacture of a powerful explosive.

The FBI learned of Aldawsari's activity from Carolina Biological, a Burlington, N.C., company that markets a broad range of scientific supplies to educational institutions, after he attempted to purchase the phenol, Keith Barker, the company's safety and compliance manger, told Newsmax.

An FBI affidavit identified Amazon.com as the source of many items Aldawsari acquired for the purpose of building a powerful explosive device. Aldawsari is now serving a life sentence for his attempted terrorism.

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Roger Schenck, a chemist and content planning manager at Chemical Abstracts Service of Columbus, Ohio, said chemicals that are easily available online can be turned into dangerous compounds, and gave as an example the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD.

"The starting materials for LSD are probably commercially available [from] many suppliers as well as instructions on the Internet to actually synthesize LSD. So, if you can order the starting materials, couldn't you make it? Schenck said in an interview with Newsmax.

"I would hope that, in commercial available chemical companies that make these starting materials available, there's some kind of qualification necessary before you can order from them," Schenck said.

Suppliers of chemicals say that safeguards are in place to limit many toxins from being distributed.

Carolina Biological, QualiChem, and other suppliers will not ship products such as phenol to a home address, but instead require customers to use an office or school address.

Another science supply company, United Nuclear Scientific Equipment & Supplies, charges a hazmat fee, requires a signature, and limits the quantity that may be purchased of some products.

Federal law doesn't necessarily make the purchase or possession of biological or chemical agents and instruments a crime.

Allen, of the FBI, said the U.S Criminal Code "addresses the knowing possession of any biological agent, toxin or delivery system if not reasonably justified for a prophylactic, protective, bona fide or other peaceful research purpose."

"This makes it illegal to possess a biological agent or toxin without a justified use," Allen said.

"For chemical agents, it is not illegal to possess various chemicals that are readily available for purchase," Allen said. "However, the acts of creating a chemical weapon and the use of explosives are both governed by various U.S. federal laws."

Natural sources of poisons, such as the castor beans used to produce the deadly toxin ricin, are also typically not regulated.

Adams, the editor who inadvertently received mercury in the mail, cautioned that if restrictions become too severe, legitimate research could be negatively affected.

"Balance is important, because as a chemist myself, I have to buy certain trace levels of toxic elements to be able to test them in the lab . . . to be able to do environmental testing, so if that were shut down, it would really harm some scientists," said Adams, who buys some of his chemical solutions through Amazon.com.

"I think it's a concentration question. If you can buy something at over a thousand parts per million, that's beyond what a scientist would need typically to do detection testing," Adams said. "I don't think the public should be able to buy . . . purified toxic chemicals, but I think the public should be able to buy low concentration for scientific purposes."

Henry Willis, director of the RAND Corporation's Homeland Security and Defense Center, said further restrictions are unnecessary.

"On the balance . . . having Internet sales of many chemicals available serves our economy in many positive ways," Willis told Newsmax.

Plus, he said, purchases over the Internet make it possible not only to track what is sold, but to collect information about the quantities sold, payment and credit cards.

Safe transportation of such products is an issue, and "we should be careful about how we transfer products," he said, adding that protocols for transportation do exist but they may not have been followed in the Adams case.

Adams' report about the mercury led to a suspension of online sales from the MSU surplus equipment site and an internal investigation of the claim, an MSU spokesman, Jason Cody, told Newsmax.

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