Could someone use anthrax for a larger attack on American cities?
Unfortunately, yes-and they could also use any of a series of other germs, some more lethal than anthrax. But it’s not easy to get anthrax, and it’s not easy to deploy. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo tried to spread anthrax from its Tokyo office building in 1993 and failed dismally. Experts disagree on how dangerous it would be if someone sprinkled anthrax in, say, an office ventilation system or a subway car, but any larger attack would be hard to pull off.
Which countries make anthrax?
Government officials say America no longer has a bioweapons program, although the military continues to use anthrax for defensive purposes such as vaccine development. More than a dozen other countries may have programs that could make anthrax, including big powers (Russia, China, India), distinctly unfriendly countries (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Cuba), and American allies (Israel, Egypt, South Africa, South Korea). More than 40 germ banks in the United States and around the world supply anthrax for scientific research.
Has anthrax been used as a weapon before?
Yes. Germany tried halfheartedly to use it during World War I. During World War II, most warring parties had biowarfare programs; Japan used anthrax in China. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union set up large biowarfare programs. President Nixon banned the production and use of biological warfare agents in 1969. The Soviets carried on; in 1979, an anthrax leak from a Soviet weapons plant killed more than 60 people.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT ANTHRAX
The discovery of anthrax in mail sent to government offices and news organizations has Americans worried. The good news is that the disease is rare. It is extremely unlikely that children would be exposed to the disease. Junior Scholastic had these questions for U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher:
Q: What is anthrax?
A: Anthrax is a disease caused by bacteria. It most commonly occurs in animals such as sheep or goats, but can occur in people exposed to the bacteria.
Q: How is it spread?
A: Anthrax is not contagious — it cannot be transmitted from person to person. Infection can occur (1) if spores enter through breaks in the skin; (2) through inhaling anthrax spores; and (3) through the digestive system.
Q: Is anthrax treatable?
A: Anthrax is very treatable. The chance of recovery is practically 100 percent if caught early.
Q: What are the symptoms?
A: Anthrax starts out with symptoms such as fever, fatigue, cough, and mild chest discomfort followed by severe breathing problems. People should not buy medicine to treat themselves, but go to a doctor if they feel ill.
Q: What can kids do?
A: Stay calm. Be cautious about opening suspicious-looking mail from people you don’t know. Tell parents or teachers if you suspect something is wrong.
Are harmful microbes set to become the newest weapons of war?
After being traumatized on September 11 by the worst terrorist attacks in its history, the United States was jolted by a second menace. Several mysterious letters were mailed to prominent journalists and politicians. The letters contained a white powder that looked like baking flour.
The powder was far from harmless though. It could infect anyone who touched or breathed it with the microbes that cause anthrax, a deadly disease. At press time, a total 18 people, including postal, office, and hospital workers, in seven states had been infected by the virus; five people had died. Federal authorities are investigating the incidents.
The letters set off a widespread panic. Many people feared that the letters were part of a second wave of terrorism-bioterrorism, the use of living organisms to purposely cause disease or death in others.
No one knew who had mailed the letters or why. Some experts believed the letters had come from foreign terrorists; others thought domestic criminals might have mailed them. Regardless of the source, the country is preparing for a whole new type of conflict.
Other agencies of the government, as well as private companies, are searching for better ways to prevent bioterrorist attacks. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is now irradiating mail. Irradiation refers to the use of high-speed beams of energy to destroy harmful organisms. The energy is strong enough to break the chemical bonds that hold a mold, fungus, or bacterium together. Some fruits are irradiated to prevent them from becoming moldy.
The postal service is irradiating mail to kill anthrax bacteria that might be contained in the mail. The radiation won’t damage most pieces of mail, say USPS oTerrorism Threat: A Local Burden
by John Ronan
It is a rare day when the front pages of the country’s newspapers do not describe a new terrorism attack or the rippling effects of a terrorist strike just passed. From Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, and Omagh, back to the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, and Lockerbie, the list is tragically long.
It will grow longer. Incidents are increasing and, because terrorist events tend to be under-reported, are actually more frequent than state and federal agencies have logged. Sacramento Fire Dept. Division Chief Jan Dunbar, writing in Fire Chief, refers to recorded events as the “…tip of the iceberg. We know not when, where or the extent of any planned or impromptu terrorist act. What we do know is these acts will continue.”
Terrorist strikes will go beyond the familiar use of explosives. According to one scientist interviewed by Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event, biological incidents alone are now running at one per month! According to the FBI, there are approximately 900 terrorist and militia groups in the United States, each capable of launching some form of terrorist attack.
During the first critical hours following a terrorist strike, local fire and emergency service agencies will have to bear the burden of fighting terrorism in whatever form it takes, chemical, biological, or nuclear. As Andrea Walter has written in the IEMS News, “Inevitably, increasing numbers of America’s local emergency managers will have to face the task of dealing with the consequences of terrorist actions.” officials, and could help save lives.
The need to prepare is urgent. The nation knows, because of Oklahoma City and other incidents, the realities of ANFO. But as destructive as explosives can be, other potential terrorist weapons are even more frightening.
A biological example demonstrates the point. Six ounces of powdered anthrax, a bacterial threat, could kill hundreds of thousands of people. What’s more, because few American doctors have seen cases of anthrax, it probably would not be quickly or accurately diagnosed, according to experts. Worse, anthrax that did not kill in the first wave of an attack could survive as spores – for decades!
Ricin, another threat, is regarded as one of the ten deadliest poisons known. There are no vaccines or antitoxins available for treatment of ricin exposure. Ricin was reportedly used in the assassination of Georgi Markov in London, in 1978, and an American, Tom Lavy, tried to import ricin into the United States in 1995. No doubt, ricin will appear again; it is a protein easily extracted from one of the world’s most common crops, the Castor plant, source of the more familiar Castor Oil.
Other weapons in the terrorist arsenal are as readily available. Anyone can still purchase fertilizer and fuel oil and concoct ANFO. Many biological and chemical agents can be produced or grown in simple laboratories with off-the-shelf equipment, such as refrigerators, separators, dryers, and fermentors. Nuclear bombs are not regarded by experts as an immediate threat because of the rarity of plutonium-239 and uranium-235. But other radioactive materials, such as cobalt-90, carbon-14, or cesium-137, are commonly used at industrial and medical sites. A chemical bomb laced with radiological contaminants could create widespread social disruption and achieve the attacker’s central goal: terror.