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October 31, 2002
Crypt News special: Big! Poison! Gas! edition. It's
classified! Project SHAD, no chemical know-how no
how, and lots of wishful thinking.
BIG! POISON! GAS! EDITION!
A week or two ago, Crypt News was told by an old
friend in cyberspace that the US military was showing
a great deal of interest in Bhopal.Net, an activist
website devoted to the sad chronicle of the Union Carbide
chemical disaster and its survivors' continuing search for
The editor of the site was puzzled by the large
number of visits from the dot-mil domain. Crypt News reasoned
the visits were due to the fact there is very little information
in the public domain on mass fatalities resulting from tons
of industrial poison rain. It's a horrid subject pressing
close to US soldiers as plans for the canning of Saddam
With war brewing everyone in the United States has been
regularly on the threat posed by chemical and biological
in the hands of terrorists or Hussein. The reasons for this
more politically grounded than scientific.
The Bush administration has made gasbag pronouncements
over the purported danger of chemical, biological and
-noo-ku-lar- weapons part of its bully pulpit fare. The
aim is to
whip the citizenry into a froth over the cockroach of Baghdad's
love of them and thereby to induce the feeling that
invasion of Iraq is necessary.
While there is little evidence that the man in the street
feels particularly threatened by chemical or biological
weapons, the media has shown no diminished interest.
However, the actual level of technical knowledge on
chemicals and biologicals and their capability or incapability
as weapons is extremely low in America. Laughable mistakes
and misconceptions are the norm. During the summer, for
the Los Angeles Times printed that the smallpox
vaccine was made from the smallpox virus -- in an article
supposedly -about- the vaccine. Of course, the smallpox
vaccine is nothing of the sort. It is, instead, the -first-
vaccine, invented by Edward Jenner who used scrapings from
cowpox -- vaccinia -- sores. It's not specialized
knowledge but standard high school biology, the story of
birth of immunization -- "vaccine" being a coinage
By extension, this national ignorance includes the employees
the Department of Defense.
A joy in widgetry
If one believes the American news media, the U.S. army is
have chemical battalions, mobile labs, protective gear,
and concoctions to clean, disinfect and neutralize anything
might come its way. This is pabulum for consumption by idiots.
Creams that cover a soldier's skin with a Teflon-like coating
are said to exist, according to an article ("Potions
Protect") published by Wired.com. Only a moron would
such a thing.
Even if one lacks a graduate education in the hard sciences,
can still use common sense to imagine one's skin covered
The remedy would be worse than the poison.
(Indeed, Crypt News believes it saw this fatal outcome
on Showtime's "Odyssey 5" when Chuck Taggart's
wife was killed after
being coated by a monster made out of Teflon.)
On the other side of this silly coin, the manufacturer of
would have one believe that protection from chemical burns
absorption is just a matter of smearing on something akin
Other potions (and potion is an unintentionally good word,
Webster being reserved for things to be completely avoided
treated with suspicion like "...a poison" or "a
magic substance") are claimed to clean a person contaminated
bacteria or chemicals.
Bactericides are, by nature, bad news to skin. Anyone with
experience in a microbiology knows this. Even simple -strongly-
bactericidal compounds, like phenol, formaldehyde or various
alcohols, are tough on the hide and mucous membranes, in
no way to be
recommended for the taking of a bath in.
Indeed, washing with other chemicals, often toxic in and
themselves, after exposure to extremely lethal compounds
dubious value. It would hold something, perhaps, for those
must handle your dead body.
Water, the universal solvent, and lots of it remains the
best way to
rinse off living things. And every chemistry lab Crypt News
been in included shower installations. Boy, took a scientist
that one out, didn't it?
So, the truth of the matter is that no one, including the
of Defense, has much of anything.
However, a foolish joy in widgetry that is peculiar to Americans
itself to wishful beliefs in salvation from devices and
which have never been tested in the real world. Similar
has been thrust upon the average soldier.
Hearing of such nonsense often seems to give U.S. news
editors erections judging by the amount of words and videotape
wasted on supposedly handy scientific capabilities which
Numerous examples of this stupid practice abound.
For example, in the furor during the anthrax mailings, test
proclaimed by the media to be able to detect deadly bacterial
the spot. Months afterward came news stories, well buried,
tests were unreliable, providing so many false positives
be useless. Tricorder-like devices were said to be in the
from tinkerers hoping for government investment, enabling
detection of anthrax.
Over a year after Amerithrax, when the FBI returned to assay
contaminated media building in Florida, no tricorders were
evidence, just the usual dreary procession of anonymoids
hazmat space suits.
A recent New York Times included a story ("A Vulnerable
Its Defenses") about the Kuwaiti army and civilians
chemical-biological-radioactivity proof plastic tents for
The article grandly passes on a Finnish company's line that
a tent will protect ten people. The photo accompanying the
left the claim open to interpretation, showing a flimsy-looking
plastic thing somewhat smaller than an old Volkswagen being
with by two soldiers.
Remember how your mother told you never to stick your head
a plastic bag? Or has everyone forgotten the part about
Crypt News recognizes that the military does have a lot
that don't work.
The untrained soldier has been publicly sold the idea that
possible to reliably detect poisons -- chemical or biological
-- in clouds miles away or prior to actually being hit by
them. No such
reliable applications science exists. First detection occurs
someone is burned by mustard, sees a cloud of gas accompanying
barrage landing on top of him, is choked by cyanide or lewisite,
stumbles into VX or sarin. A canary would be good to have.
The science of protection is said to be based on cobbled-together
technologies that could rely upon weather-mapping radars,
mass or light spectrometry, immunlogical or enzymatic kits
and other, always high-tech, analytical methods. But none
can be accurately tested because the military cannot attack
soldiers with multi-ton lay downs of VX or mustard under
It performs simulations, cooked tricks to furnish a semblance
preparedness, but they are not a substitute for the real
People pretending to be dead or rolling around on the ground
mock agony during training are palatable for news broadcasts.
Pictures of ugly chemical burns and mustard-roasted corpses
historical archives are not.
No magic detections exist for clouds of viruses or bacteria,
either. Indeed, some of the biological agents wishfully
to be detected in the field cannot be handled safely by
except very highly trained scientists. But to establish
reliability in analytical testing protocols, there is no
around the presence of real samples as a qualitative necessity.
smallpox simply doesn't exist at DoD or in the hands of
sector rendering alleged tricorder-like detection of it
Why do people believe such rubbish?
Ignore all the crap you hear about molecular genetics and
transformative bleeding-edge power of biotechnology from
for a minute and recall personal experience.
When one goes to the hospital, can the doctor, wave a tricorder
you "Bones" McCoy-like and tell if you suffer
from influenza virus, a
very bad rhinovirus, or bacterial pneumonia? He can make
guess based on physical diagnosis and weighing of symptoms
on the spot
but no device exists to give an instantaneous answer.
Want the answer? Submit to some blood tests, a throat or
and call back in a week.
Have you ever heard anyone report the following on the nightly
"The electro-thingie reported an influenza cloud coming
out of the northeast! Yes, lots of flu this December says
Yet Crypt News has reviewed documents from Pentagon contractors
with names like DynCorp and Science Applications International
Corporation, authored by people with little or no scientific
training, claiming such things are either real or just about
ready for use. Just mount 'em on the old Apache helicopter,
Of course, one must remember those in the DoD service industry
are in the business of pitchmanship, first. And a defense
contract in hand on a promise is better than no contract.
Even aggressive chemical simulations to determine what,
anything, works, cannot be performed.
Minor quantities of even mildly irritating chemicals (the
buzzword is "simulant" or "incapacitant"
) sprayed at men in
training exercises do not provide meaningful information
might happen if a detachment is hit by tons of an entirely
different and more toxic chemical.
And even any chemical thought non-toxic but irritating (or
in backyard amounts can suddenly become quite dangerous
if it washes
over people in overwhelming volume. Disasters resulting
from such would
be deemed bad for morale or worse should family members,
or the media get wind of hospitalizations. (Recent world
shows it -is- bad for morale.)
The resistance of chemical suits or tents is, therefore,
unknown. Mistakes made in suiting up or erecting a reportedly
chemical-proof shelter during training against a dye spray
similar provide no proof that chemical suits can be worn
attack by something deadly. War journalists might keep this
mind while undergoing the Pentagon's training-for-war-correspondents
attacks are noted in popular histories but on the spot accounts
by trained observers cannot be had because
they are distant history or classified. How many observers,
kind that take meticulous scientific notes of practical
to be found who witnessed the Iraq military gassing Kurds
What actually happens on the spot when crowds are soaked
of sarin? What is to be done with bodies
that have been severely contaminated? Can one burn them
or will the
poison just go into the air and spread around the incineration
How toxic is the ash?
Moving right along to more unpleasant thoughts, should chemically
contaminated bodies be buried in containers or will the
still become contaminated? Does a body bag seal the bad
What is the incidence of cross contamination in health professionals
or people who must treat the chemically wounded? All
ciphers until the real thing happens. Therefore, perhaps,
interest in Bhopal where a civilian populace was forced
with such issues.
These tough questions are never asked. They're
too difficult to answer, shaking confidence in widgets and
Instead, the polity is showered in information of no value
and little reason, factoids and assertions from a variety
idiots provided to fill up articles and interviews with
appears informed to the average Joe.
For yet another example, Crypt News quotes from the previously
mentioned New York Times. On a chemical weapon in a
Scud missile, the Times informs: "Depending on the
payload and the chemicals involved, one missile could produce
cloud 200 to 800 yards wide."
This is bull. No one at the newspaper knows if it's true,
sort of true, or the rantings of a drunken kook. One can
the volume of a given quantity of gas by employing the Ideal
PV = nRT. Will this be a tool on the battlefield? Do you
the symbols in the expression even mean or how to determine
on the fly? Hold your breath while you punch it into the
milspec laptop, good fellow.
Regardless, the standard "poison gas" payloads
paradoxically, not gasses but liquids, so even this fancy
workable. Instead, one is left with trying to come up with
amounts to a wild-ass guess about how much volume a large
of vapor, droplets (of unknown diameter and homogeneity)
on the ground at varying temperatures takes up.
(The Moscow gassing is also instructive in this regard.
There was no
science in the world that could accurately determine how
much of the
theatre would be taken up by a fixed quantity of sprayed
at what concentrations the compound would be distributed
per cubic liter of air, or at what precise dosages it would
in the people exposed to it. As a result of these unknowns,
as an apparent trifling knowledge of chemical toxicity and
variability of the human being -- death, lots of it.)
But back to the Times, which makes another mistake of
understatement when it tells us "...mustard gas can
... kill when
absorbed by the skin." Much more accurately, exposure
leaves ugly chemical burns, inside and out. Fuzzing this
truth with vague dribble about skin absorption is
the statement of someone in over their head on the matter.
All apologies good readers, but soldiers aren't chemists
sophisticated education in biochemistry is not to be had
reading The New York Times or even Crypt Newsletter!
And passing through the U.S. Army's Ft. Leonard Wood chemical/biological
warfare training center won't do the trick either.
Of the latter, that the regiment's course takes only one
complete says much about it. Crypt News' doctoral training
chemistry took half a decade. From teaching experience,
can say one -might- be able to teach soldiers to
distinguish between Gram positive and negative bacteria
under a light microscope reliably in thirty days of intensive
lab work. Very simple but accurate chemical titrations might
None are particularly necessary skills if an army has already
come under attack by chemicals or microbes on the battlefield.
One must assume the worst and, in any case, as with the
I doughboy, the lethal identity of a good chemical shelling
obvious on arrival without the need of scientific consultation.
Analytical and diagnostic tasks can be left to the real
the aftermath -- in hospitals.
The biochemical troops do have a regimental song.
Expertise in analytical hard science doesn't come from corporate
off-the-shelf mechanisms or military pamphlets but from
experience. There are no technical quick fixes to be had.
can't learn physiology and chemistry in a month-load of
There is data on vulnerability to VX and sarin from American
military tests conducted in the Sixties on soldiers -- without
informed consent. But the information is classified, the
motivation to keeping it so the usual political allergy
scandal and the taking of responsibility for very bad things.
The US government covered the information up for decades
and only now
are details on the tests, sometimes referred to as Project
lurching into view. During SHAD and related exercises, soldiers
civilians, were exposed to VX, VX labelled with a radioactive
of phosphorus (to track it -in vivo-, it can be assumed),
formulation of VX made sticky so it was harder to wash off,
sarin, soman and tabun -- all the famous nerve agents --
on ships, in
labs and in combat exercises aimed at observing results
Radio-isotope labelled VX might be useful if one were exposing
animals to it and one planned to analyze their innards for
of it after exposure. Using it as a marker to set off a
counter warning when one approaches isn't any good. Phosphorus-32,
isotope used in SHAD, can only be usefully detected at fairly
distances, at which point a soldier would already be way
too close to
the stuff. This is clear evidence of bad science, or at
astonishingly dumb work.
People were also exposed to the microbial organisms responsible
for Q fever and tularemia, both organisms of interest to
Cold War offensive bioweapons programs. Q fever accidentally
sickened -at least- four soldiers in Utah tests under the
of the US Cold War bioweapons program. In a Kafka-esque
twist, this information is not to be had from the government's
SHAD press releases but from the public literature on biological
The actual informational value released on these tests is,
of itself, a trying exercise in misinformation. A Pentagon
briefing was held. It can be fairly described as an aggravating
exercise in not telling anyone anything while hiding behind
sham of full disclosure.
Did anyone die when exposed to VX, tabun, soman? -No, we
think so. Unknown. Maybe. We're still researching that.-
harmed by these things? -It's still in the research and
phases -- forty years after the fact.- Where are the reports
effects? -They are classified.-
Also used in the 60's tests were -simulants-, a US military
euphemism for materials it thought to be harmless or
just incapacitating. (The DoD love of vague euphemisms for
degrees of bad juju is always surprising.)
In one test, sailors were exposed to sulfur dioxide, a choking
gas. For anyone who recalls a childhood chemistry set and
of sulfur, small amounts of sulfur dioxide are what caused
sensation that the top of your head was about to blow off
you caught whiff of it. That anyone would think being engulfed
in a cloud of it is OK is incomprehensible.
In other tests, -Serratia marcescens-, a microbe known
for its distinct red color, was used as a biological weapon
simulant. It is now well documented to cause pneumonias.
This information is found in any good entry level college
microbiology textbook. And while this may not have been
the time of the military's use of it, the good scientist
have had to have entertained the thought that exposure to
quantities of it could cause disease.
In another test, the military exposed soldiers to a toxin
by -Staphylococcus aureus-, another common bacterium. The
again called an "incapacitant," is one of the
etiologics agent in
-Staph- food poisoning and a close reading of the literature
warfare reveals this, too, was part of the US arsenal of
manufactured by the Army at Ft. Detrick in the 50's and
-Staph- food poisoning is well understood, there is no literature
health consequences of freak exposure to a cloud of its
The SHAD documentation coyly reveals that an "incapacitating"
is 30 milligrams per person. Tantalizingly, no information
the damnable figure was determined or what happens when
someone is exposed to military-style quantities orders of
Uncle Sam wanted you to endure severe food poisoning in
the cause of
fighting against the godless Commie!
Still another bizarre experiment involved exposing people
Baker Island in the Pacific to a -Aedes aegypti- mosquito
The US media has not seen fit to mention it, perhaps because
appears so mystifying.
-Aedes aegypti- transmits yellow fever. During the Cold
Ft. Detrick scientists developed the yellow fever virus
as a weapon.
A test involving the study of mass releases of -Aedes aegypti-
and the study of the resulting biting patterns could be
as an exercise in offensive bioweaponry. A defensive test
be the study of how to wipe out such insects, not how to
sufficient quantity to ensure everyone was bitten many times
Revelations on these tests, such as they exist, proceed
participants, -read- victims, have
gone to the Veterans Administration over medical benefits
conditions said to have resulted from the tests. But the
grunt remains screwed because of the potential for scandal
if too much
detail about the rotten science of testing on people without
The SHAD tests seem to have been conducted under the justification
of analysis of effects of chemical and biological weaponry
efficacy of protective measures. It is quite certain that
least semi-accurate notes had to have been taken. However,
trace of them is evident anywhere near the public record.
And so we return to Bhopal.
gassing good practice
One thing immediately apparent at Bhopal is the number of
casualties produced by a gross amount of chemical vapor.
of methyl isocyanate was enough poison to kill thousands
overwhelm the hospitals and scorch the land. No one could
the quantity of poisonous fog and more people died than
By contrast, the US media in 2002 has dwelled on the extreme
of "nerve gas." Phrases like "a droplet of..."
of such being enough to kill a person are common.
It's useless information. Relative toxicities are
unimportant in a chemical catastrophe. It's not critical
VX is more potent than chlorine, phosgene, mustards or methyl
isocyanate (or even fentanyl). Military or industrial quantities
render the minimum lethal dosage irrelevant.
Information on the Bhopal tonnage might give line soldiers
inkling of how much gas they might actually have to be hit
cause a calamity of Biblical proportion in unprotected immobile
troops. This could then be related to the Iraqi military's
under fire of delivering such a quantity.
World War I empirically indicates that extreme amounts
of gas had to be used to produce "results."
On April 22, 1915, the Germans opened 6000 cylinders of
chlorine -- a staggering 160 tons -- in front of Ypres.
Five thousand died and 10,000 were wounded.
In the final German offensive of 1918, the Allies in the
Salient in France were relentlessly shelled
with mustard. In a two-week period, the Allies, even though
prepared for gas attacks, saw around 13,000 men go into
field hospitals. To achieve this, the Germans expended 170,000
Even without the benefit of a scholar of World War I weaponry
can do a simple calculation to shed light on the figure.
assuming five pounds of gas per shell, the German barrage
down a simply astonishing 425 tons. (And that's a low estimate.)
This equates to ten times the amount of poisonous material
released at Bhopal.
While chemicals are always referred to as weapons of mass
destruction, the assertion is not supported by figures.
are not comparable to the Hiroshima bomb or even Curtis
firebombing of Tokyo. Chemicals equals WMDs is a political,
a scientific, definition.
It can be argued, instead, that since the amounts of gas
to produce casualties are so high, similar non-insignificant
amounts of high explosive would yield similar mayhem.
Gas assaults were applied by literally opening a trainload
cylinders or huge barrages assembled for giant set piece
engagements. No means of delivery by air forces existed.
Both would appear to be out of range of Iraqi capabilities.
Relatively ancient history: Hussein's army did mount some
War I-style gas assaults in an inconclusive war with Iran
the Reagan administration. Saddam was our pal, then, if
News recalls rightly.
Don't fear the Scudder
However, much is still made of delivery of chemical weapons
Iraqi Scud missile.
The Scud warhead, assuming public domain figures are correct,
is only a bit over half a ton. Even if it is granted that
has hundreds of tons of toxic material in secret stocks,
military has no obvious way to deliver it in World War I
Two Scuds, very optimistically, might be able to deliver
over a ton of chemical ... somewhere. This is one hundred
the volume of chlorine sent downwind at Ypres, almost a
amount, militarily speaking.
During Gulf War I, Hussein launched 39 Scuds at Israel --
over 90 during the entire war. Combined, the ones aimed
Israel generously -might- have been able to deliver about
twenty tons of chemicals to a city or battlefied -- had
landed roughly in the same place in a very short period
and not broken apart in flight -- as some did.
This argument also makes the generous assumption that Iraq
has a missile capability equivalent to that fielded in Gulf
Skeptical use of the old noodle might lead to doubt that
is actually so.
The suggested terror of gas by Scud will remain high due
political air on them. But, again, it's worth noting that
not a lot of evidence that the average American gives much
The risk to civilians in the vicinity of any new Iraq war
cannot be precisely addressed. However, evacuation from
a half ton
of poisonous anything is attemptable. (If one is trapped
in a closed
building with armed guards rushing the entrances and surrounded
thugs with machine guns, no.) Historically, it proved impossible
flee from forty tons of methyl isocyanate, 160 tons of chlorine,
425 tons of mustard.
This is small comfort, but a more common sense-based risk
assessment than can be furnished by mass media.
That leaves gas delivery by artillery, a short range affair,
delivery by airplane. The Bush administration has attempted
frighten people with the latter potential, floating the
that Iraq would fly jets loaded with chemicals robotically,
perhaps into the continental United States.  It's an
unusually ridiculous theory -- even for this President.
It should be recognized that the Iraqi military has never
the capability to fly even one airplane for more than moments
in the face of USAF air superiority. And there is little
to support a workable delivery by a sizeable artillery detachment
which would have to set up within 25 miles of opposing ground
troops without being detected and destroyed. Missiles much
smaller than the Scud are bound by similar limitations --
insignificant payload and relatively short range.
Videotape, what there is of it, on mass media continues
to show the Iraqi military to be an inept disgrace to the
idea of a working armed force.
In ten years of trying, Iraq has not shot down a single
US jet in
its airspace. And it has been hard to miss the recent television
broadcast of an Iraqi missile battery firing on US warplanes
seemingly point blank range, missing and subsequently being
destroyed. The country has no control of its skies and yet
asked to believe it could launch a significant chemical
by jet airplane.
None of this rules out the gas attacks can be mounted by
the occurrence of a lucky shot or a nasty surprise. If soldiers
are pinned down in Baghdad, the launching of gas strikes
easier. Whether they accomplish anything besides the death
civilians and enough soldiers to goad the US military into
something exceptional -- like flatten Baghdad with
high explosive, Daisy Cutters and incendiaries -- is unknowable.
1. The Joseph K Guide to Tech Terminology defines "incapacitant":
n.; a general or secret military scientist's term for a
weapon somewhat less poisonous than a really poisonous gas.
Usage: The president was angered when the -incapacitant-
his general had said would put terrorists to sleep killed
quite a lot of people -- so he yelled at the man.
The rather obvious problem with "incapacitant"
as a chemical
definition is that it only has political validity, and
then only if one can get the person the "incapacitant"
is used on, or
their family, or their government to buy the definition,
too. Asked to
consider this while at the hospital, graveyard, or on the
end of it, and the owner of the "incapacitant"
is just another
war criminal or terrorist.
"Incapacitant" does have political validity as
a sales tool. In this
case, industry or academic contractors use it as an enticement
get the Departments of Defense or Justice interested in
their work in the field of chemical weapons. Government
apparently like the arrangement, too, because the research
in easily disownable independent contractors.
Indeed, the word itself can be used to undermine chemical
biological arms treaties in a number of ways. First, it
those who wish to continue arms research to argue from a
of scientific authority that modernity and technology has
it possible to develop a nuanced approach to poisoning people
in which people are not killed quickly, but perhaps only
sick or caused to run away. The argument isn't new. In a
different form it was also popular at the beginning of World
when gas weapons were oddly thought to be more humane and
applauded because they killed with a technology assumed
loftier than base guns and bullets.
Not to be confused with DoD's demonstrated ability to fly
loaded with missiles over Iraq.
of passing interest:
Brews Potions That Protect -- try not to laugh.
shame of SHAD
Peddled -- a year-old backgrounder.
-- George Smith
2002 Crypt Newsletter