Thursday, February 15, 2007

Body Count Mentality

When I was a freshman at RPI (back when a slide rule meant something, you whipersnappers!), I joined up with the Rensselaer Engineer, the school's engineering magazine. I later became its editor, but that's another story.

What I did that first year was write articles, a lot of them, sometimes several per issue, under pseudonyms so it would look like we had more people working for us that we did. One of those articles was titled, "Something Called CBW," after a chapter title in a James Bond book, as I recall. "CBW" is "Chemical and Biological Weapons."

Now they are called "Weapons of Mass Destruction," or "WMD," which is just wrong, on so many levels. There are several places on the Web that have fairly good discussions of why this is the case. I'll point you to this one, by retired Army Master Gunner, Red Thomas.

I will note that the Thomas certainly isn't a chemist, and when he says "amyl nitride" (there is no such thing) he means amyl nitrate or amyl nitrite, both of which have very similar actions on the body. Both are vasodilators, as are most organic nitrates/nitrites, and smooth muscle relaxants generally. (Remind me to say something about the paper "Sudden Death in Explosives Workers" sometime. It does not refer to the obvious dangers of explosives; it refers to what happens when someone with hidden heart disease goes off vasodilators on weekends, when they’re not working around nitrated explosives).

Now let me add a few things to what Master Gunner Thomas has to say.

People get pretty wiggy about biological agents, when actually these are the least of our worries, least likely to be used, least likely to be effective, and most likely to backfire against terrorists. Why the last? Because the real “scare scenario” that of triggering a pandemic, is the last thing that any terrorist organization wants. It removes their prime defense, which is non-locality. They are dispersed and diffuse, so they are difficult to find and kill. But a global pandemic doesn’t care about that at all; it will just kill x number in a population randomly. Actually, if you are living in a cave, it’s worse than random, because poor food, sanitation, and medical supplies make you more vulnerable. (Incidentally, that also means that, if a country were actually worried about biological warfare, then a top priority should be a well-run and well-funded public health service).

Notice that most “weaponized” biological agents are actually designed to reduce the likelihood of a spreading epidemic. Why is anthrax so well-suited for biowarfare (realize that anthrax is the only bioagent that has been used so far as a terror weapon)? Because anthrax is hard to transmit, but you can prepare a lot of spores to infect people. Botulinus toxin is even more obvious: it’s just a chemical agent with a biological source, like ricin.

Once upon a time, an air pollution regulator accused me (fairly politely, but still…) of having a “body count mentality.” What he meant was that I trusted mortality statistics more than projections or estimates of morbidity, real deaths as opposed to harder-to-quantify sickness or “projected” deaths deaths based on toxicological models, animal models, etc.). Probably a fair cop, but let’s see what the old body count mentality gives us for CBW:

Bioterror deaths:

U.S. mail anthrax cases of late 2001: 5
USSR accidental anthrax release 1979: 66 (possibly more, but no more than a factor of two)

That’s pretty much it. And for the USSR case definitely and the US case probably, both were the result of state-run biological warfare programs, not terrorism per se.

How about chemical weapons? There the body count is a bit higher for terrorists, mainly because of the Japanese subway attacks by the AUM group using Sarin nerve agent. That killed 12 people, and injured thousands.

Then there is the charge that Saddam Hussein used gas warfare against the Kurds, and/or against Iran in the Iran/Iraq war. I’ve followed these reports and it is my firm conclusion that I have no idea if any of it is true. There was also a report that an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) used in a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004 also contained sarin, but I haven’t even been able to find the name of the lab that supposedly did the confirmation testing. So what we have is a press release, at a time when there have been news stories of deliberate disinformation campaigns sponsored by the military. Feh. What remains unquestionable, however, is that there was plenty of opportunity for Iraq to use the stuff against U.S. soldiers in two wars, and Iraq never did so. If they had it, why didn’t they use it?

The obvious answer: gas warfare is not very effective.

On the other hand, look at this table:

I’ve lumped a number of terrorist attacks together with airplane disasters, because an aircraft is probably one of the easier targets, even if you’re not trying to fly it into a building. The “Iraq SCUD” incident was the biggest single casualty hit during Desert Storm. The 1983 Beirut bombing was the greatest US casualty hit prior to 9/11 (and actually the greatest number of US soldiers killed in a single day since Vietnam. But notice that our own homegrown terror warrior Tim McVeigh managed quite a respectable kill ratio with just an ANFO truck bomb. Put another way, if each of the 19 9/11 hijackers had had the same success as TM managed in Okalahoma City, they’d have killed more people than they actually did.

In short, going on the record rather than “scenarios” and other fictions, ammonium nitrate and fuel oil is a better WMD than chemical or biological weapons.

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