The Terrors Of Toxins

FOR ALL THE UPHEAVAL IT CAUSED, the last gulf war was essentially a regional dispute. The current crisis centers on a far bigger and scarier issue: the growing threat of chemical and biological weapons. Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons on Iran and Kurdistan, and he has a long-running infatuation with germ-warfare agents as well. U.N. inspectors have established that Iraq produced some 8,000 liters of anthrax spores during the '80s--enough, by some estimates, to kill every person in the world. Saddam's forces also manufactured 20,000 liters of botulinum toxin, a deadly bacterial poison, and packed much of it into warheads. Saddam has the facilities and expertise to produce weapons of mass destruction--and he's pointedly blocking outside monitoring efforts.

International conventions have long prohibited the use of chemical weapons during war, and they bar any country from even making or acquiring biological weapons. But intelligence experts believe that 16 countries, including China, Libya and North Korea, maintain biological-warfare programs. Small-time terrorists are getting into the act as well. Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult whose 1995 nerve-gas attack killed a dozen people on a Tokyo subway, was reportedly stockpiling anthrax and botulin toxin--two of the deadliest known germ-warfare agents--and U.S. extremists seem to be following the group's example. Federal law-enforcement officials say the volume of credible domestic threats has doubled in the past year; the FBI is currently investigating several dozen.

Modern chemical weapons date from World War I, which brought us chlorine gas and mustard gas, and they've grown ever more deadly. Just before World War II, German scientists looking for a better insecticide developed the first nerve gas, tabun, which led to deadlier agents called sarin and VX. All the nerve gases block the body's production of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that regulates the nerves controlling the action of certain muscles. When you lack acetylcholinesterase, your diaphragm tightens, you suffer convulsions and you die gasping for air. Sarin is deadly as long as it lingers in the air, but it dissipates quickly. VX is thicker and more persistent and makes a far more dangerous weapon. The substance is readily absorbed through any orifice; even a drop on the skin can kill within minutes. And because the key ingredients can be stored separately, it's easy to hide and transport.

All of Iraq's known chemical-weapons facilities were destroyed under U.N. supervision in 1994, but experts suspect that Saddam still has stockpiles of VX--as well as bombs, rockets and missiles capable of delivering the stuff. Civilian populations are largely defenseless against nerve gas, but there are ways to counter it. A drug called atropine can reverse the effects if administered promptly, and pretreatment with pyridostigmine can help shield the body, by sealing off acetylcholinesterase molecules. Some 400,000 U.S. troops took pyridostigmine as a precaution during the gulf war.

Chemical weapons are frighteningly easy to use. Because they're often toxic on contact, says Col. David Franz, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, ""you can basically fly over and toss a bucket of this stuff out on troops.'' Germs and bacterial toxins are harder to preserve and deliver, and they tend to act more slowly. As a result, they're not very useful for stopping a line of infantry on the battlefield. Yet as instruments of terror, biological weapons may pose the greater threat. A few grams of the right toxin can cause more harm than a ton of nerve gas, and a test tube's worth of infectious material can start an epidemic that sustains itself. What's more, any laboratory equipped to make vaccines can easily churn out deadly biological material. ""A U.N. inspector may think everything is fine if he visits on the day you're producing vaccine,'' Franz says. ""A week later you can be producing biological-warfare agents.'' Here are some of the agents that Saddam, or a freelance extremist with access to a lab, could be cooking up:

Anthrax. Spores from the soil-dwelling bacterium Bacillus anthracis are very hardy and very dangerous. They survive for decades, even in harsh environmental conditions, and can enter the body through the stomach, the lungs or even small skin lesions. Warheads designed to disperse dried, ground anthrax spores into the air could wipe out large population centers and leave them uninhabitable. Iraq procured the anthrax organism from U.S. suppliers during the 1980s, and cultured it to produce crude bombs that were never used. Inhalation of just 8,000 anthrax spores can cause woolsorter's disease, a condition that textile workers sometimes contract from the wool or hides of infected sheep. The condition starts with fever and malaise, and progresses to respiratory failure, septic shock and, in many cases, meningitis. Penicillin, injected every two hours, can save an infected person if administered before major symptoms set in. But once the symptoms appear, death usually follows within 36 hours. Researchers have developed an experimental vaccine that involves six shots over 18 months followed by annual boosters. But it hasn't been fully tested in humans.

Botulinum toxin. Though it's technically a biological agent, botulinum toxin, or ""botox,'' behaves more like a chemical weapon. This poison, which is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, doesn't cause infection, as anthrax does. Once it gets into your system, whether orally or through inhaled particles, it blocks nerve transmission, causing paralysis that can lead quickly to respiratory failure. Gram for gram, botulinum toxin is the deadliest substance known to science--15,000 times as powerful as VX and 100,000 times worse than sarin. The effects depend on the dose. Ventilators can usually keep a victim alive until the paralysis passes, but recovery can take months. And though an antidote made from horse serum can prevent illness if administered early, some people are violently allergic to it.

Ricin. This toxin comes from castor-bean plants, and concentrated solutions can be very nasty. Inhaled ricin is inevitably fatal in animals, and there's no antidote. The Soviet secret police developed ricin-firing umbrellas in the 1970s, and their Bulgarian counterparts used one to assassinate defector Georgi Markov in London. In 1989 the Iraqis tried to build weapons that would release ricin into the atmosphere, but their efforts apparently failed.

Smallpox. Vaccines finally eradicated this ancient scourge in the late 1970s. Officially, there are only two samples of the virus left on the planet (one in the United States and one in Russia). But intelligence officials suspect that several governments, including Iraq's, may be cultivating it as a weapon. Smallpox is an airborne agent that one could easily spray into a crowded public space. But unlike measles or chickenpox, it kills a third of its victims. When European settlers unleashed it on the Americas in the 16th century, tens of millions of previously unexposed people died. Now that we've curbed the disease, and stopped vaccinating against it, we're as vulnerable as they were.

PHOTO (COLOR): An anti-terrorism drill on the streets of New York simulated the kind of nerve-gas attack that could kill a lot of people--quickly

TAILOR-MADE FOR MASS DESTRUCTION

Just how much mayhem could a few planes carrying a small payload of chemical or biological weapons cause? On a clear, breezy night, they could spray a sleeping city in minutes--and kill thousands, even millions. What 200 pounds of the leading killers can do:

WEAPON     WHAT IT DOES         INGREDIENTS         FALLOUT

Anthrax    Black pustules,      Inhalable spore     Sprayed over a
           vomiting, fever      from bacteria.      city the size
           and suffocation      Can lie dormant     of Omaha, it
           in 2 to 4 days       for decades.        would kill up
                                                    to 2.5 million

Botox      Attacks nervous      Toxin produced      Could kill up
           system. Causes       by botulism         to 40,000 in 
           respiratory          bacteria; Iraq      an area the   
           failure in 2 to      first acquired      size of the  
           12 hours.            from U.S.           Mall of 
                                                    America

VX         Paralysis;           A phosphine         Sprayed over a
           involuntary          oxide nerve gas     site the size
           muscles              100 times           of Disneyland,
           eventually           deadlier than        it would kill
           strangle vital       sarin               up to 12,500
           organs

SOURCES: RAYMOND A. ZILINSKAS, PH.D., ADAPTED FROM OFFICE OF TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT, 1993

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