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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.


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 Hussein
move forward.

With war brewing everyone in the United States has been badgered
regularly on the threat posed by chemical and biological weapons
in the hands of terrorists or Hussein. The reasons for this are
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 example,
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 the
birth of immunization -- "vaccine" being a coinage from

By extension, this national ignorance includes the employees of
the Department of Defense.

A joy in widgetry

If one believes the American news media, the U.S. army is said to
have chemical battalions, mobile labs, protective gear, sensors
and concoctions to clean, disinfect and neutralize anything that
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 That
Protect") published by Only a moron would believe
such a thing.

Even if one lacks a graduate education in the hard sciences, one
can still use common sense to imagine one's skin covered in Teflon.
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 the nostrum
would have one believe that protection from chemical burns and/or
absorption is just a matter of smearing on something akin to a
suntan lotion.

Other potions (and potion is an unintentionally good word, in
Webster being reserved for things to be completely avoided or
treated with suspicion like "...a poison" or "a supposedly
magic substance") are claimed to clean a person contaminated with
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 of
themselves, after exposure to extremely lethal compounds is of
dubious value. It would hold something, perhaps, for those who
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 has ever
been in included shower installations. Boy, took a scientist to figure
that one out, didn't it?

So, the truth of the matter is that no one, including the Department
of Defense, has much of anything.

However, a foolish joy in widgetry that is peculiar to Americans lends
itself to wishful beliefs in salvation from devices and procedures
which have never been tested in the real world. Similar groupthink
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 exist only
on paper.

Numerous examples of this stupid practice abound.
For example, in the furor during the anthrax mailings, test kits were
proclaimed by the media to be able to detect deadly bacterial spores on
the spot. Months afterward came news stories, well buried, that such
tests were unreliable, providing so many false positives as to
be useless. Tricorder-like devices were said to be in the offing
from tinkerers hoping for government investment, enabling instant
detection of anthrax.

All phlogiston.

Over a year after Amerithrax, when the FBI returned to assay a
contaminated media building in Florida, no tricorders were in
evidence, just the usual dreary procession of anonymoids in plastic
hazmat space suits.

A recent New York Times included a story ("A Vulnerable Kuwait Readies
Its Defenses") about the Kuwaiti army and civilians buying allegedly
chemical-biological-radioactivity proof plastic tents for $13,000
a pop.

The article grandly passes on a Finnish company's line that such
a tent will protect ten people. The photo accompanying the story
left the claim open to interpretation, showing a flimsy-looking
plastic thing somewhat smaller than an old Volkswagen being fiddled
with by two soldiers.

Remember how your mother told you never to stick your head in
a plastic bag? Or has everyone forgotten the part about

Crypt News recognizes that the military does have a lot of things
that don't work.

The untrained soldier has been publicly sold the idea that it is
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 when
someone is burned by mustard, sees a cloud of gas accompanying a
barrage landing on top of him, is choked by cyanide or lewisite, or
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 of it
can be accurately tested because the military cannot attack its own
soldiers with multi-ton lay downs of VX or mustard under battlefield

It performs simulations, cooked tricks to furnish a semblance of
preparedness, but they are not a substitute for the real deal.
People pretending to be dead or rolling around on the ground in
mock agony during training are palatable for news broadcasts.
Pictures of ugly chemical burns and mustard-roasted corpses from
historical archives are not.

No magic detections exist for clouds of viruses or bacteria,
either. Indeed, some of the biological agents wishfully claimed
to be detected in the field cannot be handled safely by anyone
except very highly trained scientists. But to establish
reliability in analytical testing protocols, there is no getting
around the presence of real samples as a qualitative necessity. And
smallpox simply doesn't exist at DoD or in the hands of the private
sector rendering alleged tricorder-like detection of it ridiculous.
Why do people believe such rubbish?

Ignore all the crap you hear about molecular genetics and the
transformative bleeding-edge power of biotechnology from the media
for a minute and recall personal experience.

When one goes to the hospital, can the doctor, wave a tricorder at
you "Bones" McCoy-like and tell if you suffer from influenza virus, a
very bad rhinovirus, or bacterial pneumonia? He can make an educated
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 nasal swab
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 our way
out of the northeast! Yes, lots of flu this December says the

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, boys!

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, if
anything, works, cannot be performed.

Minor quantities of even mildly irritating chemicals (the Army
buzzword is "simulant" or "incapacitant" [1]) sprayed at men in
training exercises do not provide meaningful information about what
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 "calming")
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, lawyers
or the media get wind of hospitalizations. (Recent world events
shows it -is- bad for morale.)

The resistance of chemical suits or tents is, therefore, relatively
unknown. Mistakes made in suiting up or erecting a reportedly
chemical-proof shelter during training against a dye spray or something
similar provide no proof that chemical suits can be worn properly under
attack by something deadly. War journalists might keep this in
mind while undergoing the Pentagon's training-for-war-correspondents


Soldiers aren't chemists

Gas 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, the
kind that take meticulous scientific notes of practical value, are
to be found who witnessed the Iraq military gassing Kurds in
in 1988?

What actually happens on the spot when crowds are soaked with tons
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 site?
How toxic is the ash?

Moving right along to more unpleasant thoughts, should chemically
contaminated bodies be buried in containers or will the ground
still become contaminated? Does a body bag seal the bad stuff in?
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, the
interest in Bhopal where a civilian populace was forced to deal
with such issues.

These tough questions are never asked. They're
too difficult to answer, shaking confidence in widgets and
whizz-bang technology.

Instead, the polity is showered in information of no value
and little reason, factoids and assertions from a variety of village
idiots provided to fill up articles and interviews with stuff that
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 a gas
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 determine
the volume of a given quantity of gas by employing the Ideal Gas Law,
PV = nRT. Will this be a tool on the battlefield? Do you know what
the symbols in the expression even mean or how to determine them
on the fly? Hold your breath while you punch it into the old
milspec laptop, good fellow.

Regardless, the standard "poison gas" payloads envisioned are,
paradoxically, not gasses but liquids, so even this fancy isn't
workable. Instead, one is left with trying to come up with what
amounts to a wild-ass guess about how much volume a large mixture
of vapor, droplets (of unknown diameter and homogeneity) and liquid
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 chemical, or
at what concentrations the compound would be distributed throughout
per cubic liter of air, or at what precise dosages it would be found
in the people exposed to it. As a result of these unknowns, as well
as an apparent trifling knowledge of chemical toxicity and the
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 to mustard
leaves ugly chemical burns, inside and out. Fuzzing this stark
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 and a
sophisticated education in biochemistry is not to be had by
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 month to
complete says much about it. Crypt News' doctoral training in
chemistry took half a decade. From teaching experience, Crypt News
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 also be

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 World War
I doughboy, the lethal identity of a good chemical shelling becomes
obvious on arrival without the need of scientific consultation.
Analytical and diagnostic tasks can be left to the real scientists in
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 thorough human
experience. There are no technical quick fixes to be had. One
can't learn physiology and chemistry in a month-load of afternoons.

That's classified!

There is data on vulnerability to VX and sarin from American
military tests conducted in the Sixties on soldiers -- without their
informed consent. But the information is classified, the current
motivation to keeping it so the usual political allergy to
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 SHAD,
lurching into view. During SHAD and related exercises, soldiers and
civilians, were exposed to VX, VX labelled with a radioactive isotope
of phosphorus (to track it -in vivo-, it can be assumed), a
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 against
protected troops.

Radio-isotope labelled VX might be useful if one were exposing test
animals to it and one planned to analyze their innards for presence
of it after exposure. Using it as a marker to set off a Geiger
counter warning when one approaches isn't any good. Phosphorus-32, the
isotope used in SHAD, can only be usefully detected at fairly short
distances, at which point a soldier would already be way too close to
the stuff. This is clear evidence of bad science, or at least
astonishingly dumb work.

People were also exposed to the microbial organisms responsible
for Q fever and tularemia, both organisms of interest to the army's
Cold War offensive bioweapons programs. Q fever accidentally
sickened -at least- four soldiers in Utah tests under the purview
of the US Cold War bioweapons program. In a Kafka-esque
twist, this information is not to be had from the government's recent
SHAD press releases but from the public literature on biological

The actual informational value released on these tests is, in and
of itself, a trying exercise in misinformation. A Pentagon press
briefing was held. It can be fairly described as an aggravating
exercise in not telling anyone anything while hiding behind a
sham of full disclosure.

Did anyone die when exposed to VX, tabun, soman? -No, we don't
think so. Unknown. Maybe. We're still researching that.- Who was
harmed by these things? -It's still in the research and determination
phases -- forty years after the fact.- Where are the reports on
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 varying
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 the burning
of sulfur, small amounts of sulfur dioxide are what caused the
sensation that the top of your head was about to blow off when
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 known at
the time of the military's use of it, the good scientist would
have had to have entertained the thought that exposure to unnatural
quantities of it could cause disease.

In another test, the military exposed soldiers to a toxin produced
by -Staphylococcus aureus-, another common bacterium. The toxin,
again called an "incapacitant," is one of the etiologics agent in
-Staph- food poisoning and a close reading of the literature on biological
warfare reveals this, too, was part of the US arsenal of bioweapons
manufactured by the Army at Ft. Detrick in the 50's and 60's. While
-Staph- food poisoning is well understood, there is no literature on the
health consequences of freak exposure to a cloud of its toxic product.
The SHAD documentation coyly reveals that an "incapacitating" dose
is 30 milligrams per person. Tantalizingly, no information on how
the damnable figure was determined or what happens when
someone is exposed to military-style quantities orders of magnitude

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 on
Baker Island in the Pacific to a -Aedes aegypti- mosquito

The US media has not seen fit to mention it, perhaps because it
appears so mystifying.

-Aedes aegypti- transmits yellow fever. During the Cold War,
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 interpreted
as an exercise in offensive bioweaponry. A defensive test would
be the study of how to wipe out such insects, not how to release
sufficient quantity to ensure everyone was bitten many times

Revelations on these tests, such as they exist, proceed because
participants, -read- victims, have
gone to the Veterans Administration over medical benefits for
conditions said to have resulted from the tests. But the average
grunt remains screwed because of the potential for scandal if too much
detail about the rotten science of testing on people without consent
comes out.

The SHAD tests seem to have been conducted under the justification
of analysis of effects of chemical and biological weaponry and the
efficacy of protective measures. It is quite certain that at
least semi-accurate notes had to have been taken. However, not a
trace of them is evident anywhere near the public record.
And so we return to Bhopal.

Mass gassing good practice

One thing immediately apparent at Bhopal is the number of instant
casualties produced by a gross amount of chemical vapor. Forty tons
of methyl isocyanate was enough poison to kill thousands outright,
overwhelm the hospitals and scorch the land. No one could escape
the quantity of poisonous fog and more people died than on 9/11.

By contrast, the US media in 2002 has dwelled on the extreme toxicity
of "nerve gas." Phrases like "a droplet of..." and variations
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 that
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 an
inkling of how much gas they might actually have to be hit with to
cause a calamity of Biblical proportion in unprotected immobile
troops. This could then be related to the Iraqi military's capability
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 Cambrai
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 the
field hospitals. To achieve this, the Germans expended 170,000
gas shells.

Even without the benefit of a scholar of World War I weaponry one
can do a simple calculation to shed light on the figure. Modestly
assuming five pounds of gas per shell, the German barrage put
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. They
are not comparable to the Hiroshima bomb or even Curtis Lemay's
firebombing of Tokyo. Chemicals equals WMDs is a political, not
a scientific, definition.

It can be argued, instead, that since the amounts of gas used
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 of gas
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 World
War I-style gas assaults in an inconclusive war with Iran during
the Reagan administration. Saddam was our pal, then, if Crypt
News recalls rightly.

Don't fear the Scudder

However, much is still made of delivery of chemical weapons via
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 Iraq
has hundreds of tons of toxic material in secret stocks, the
military has no obvious way to deliver it in World War I or
Bhopal-like volume.

Two Scuds, very optimistically, might be able to deliver a little
over a ton of chemical ... somewhere. This is one hundred sixtieth
the volume of chlorine sent downwind at Ypres, almost a laughable
amount, militarily speaking.

During Gulf War I, Hussein launched 39 Scuds at Israel -- something
over 90 during the entire war. Combined, the ones aimed at
Israel generously -might- have been able to deliver about
twenty tons of chemicals to a city or battlefied -- had they all
landed roughly in the same place in a very short period of time
and not broken apart in flight -- as some did.

This argument also makes the generous assumption that Iraq actually
has a missile capability equivalent to that fielded in Gulf War I.
Skeptical use of the old noodle might lead to doubt that this
is actually so.

The suggested terror of gas by Scud will remain high due to
political air on them. But, again, it's worth noting that there is
not a lot of evidence that the average American gives much thought
to it.

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 by
thugs with machine guns, no.) Historically, it proved impossible to
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, and
delivery by airplane. The Bush administration has attempted to
frighten people with the latter potential, floating the idea
that Iraq would fly jets loaded with chemicals robotically,
perhaps into the continental United States. [2] It's an
unusually ridiculous theory -- even for this President.

It should be recognized that the Iraqi military has never exhibited
the capability to fly even one airplane for more than moments
in the face of USAF air superiority. And there is little evidence
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 -- individually
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 at
seemingly point blank range, missing and subsequently being
destroyed. The country has no control of its skies and yet one is
asked to believe it could launch a significant chemical attack
by jet airplane.

None of this rules out the gas attacks can be mounted by Iraq,
the occurrence of a lucky shot or a nasty surprise. If soldiers
are pinned down in Baghdad, the launching of gas strikes becomes
easier. Whether they accomplish anything besides the death of
civilians and enough soldiers to goad the US military into doing
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 chemical
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 receiving
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 to
get the Departments of Defense or Justice interested in funding
their work in the field of chemical weapons. Government agencies
apparently like the arrangement, too, because the research is hidden
in easily disownable independent contractors.

Indeed, the word itself can be used to undermine chemical and
biological arms treaties in a number of ways. First, it allows
those who wish to continue arms research to argue from a cloak
of scientific authority that modernity and technology has made
it possible to develop a nuanced approach to poisoning people
in which people are not killed quickly, but perhaps only made
sick or caused to run away. The argument isn't new. In a slightly
different form it was also popular at the beginning of World War I
when gas weapons were oddly thought to be more humane and sometimes
applauded because they killed with a technology assumed to be
loftier than base guns and bullets.

2. Not to be confused with DoD's demonstrated ability to fly robots
loaded with missiles over Iraq.

Links of passing interest:

Army Brews Potions That Protect -- try not to laugh.

The shame of SHAD

Gas Peddled -- a year-old backgrounder.

-- George Smith

copyright 2002 Crypt Newsletter