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Fact, fiction or bioterror drill? How to cook up a ricin scare

Take one reservoir, two tons ricin mash, stir vigorously

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We Yanks love to be scared. The more scared we can be, the better. The Effect of Bioterrorism Messages on Anxiety Levels, a recent article in a peer-reviewed health quarterly, put a point to it. Those covering the science of terror beat in the United States have known for a bit that the mainstream media's uncritical transmission of expert hectoring on doom has had the proper effect.

Epidemiologist Hillel Cohen and two colleagues performed a small study in which graduate students were advised of the gravity of bioterror through excerpts from Richard Preston's The Cobra Event (review) or another warning (see Can bioterrorism warnings make you sick?). Unsurprisingly, those who read the material based on Preston were more scared of bioterror.

Preston, for those who don't recall, is the non-fiction/fiction writer equivalent of the grindhouse movie director. (Gentle fans, please hold the hate mail.) He turned the relatively rare and terrible hemorrhagic diseases caused by the Ebola and Marburg viruses into an infotainment franchise. Preston never met a virus that didn't cause ichors to spurt. The Cobra Event was his fictional treatment, continuing the flogging of a favorite riff.

For it the bioterror weapon was a custom-made virus that destroys you with a fatal case of Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, an exceedingly rare and ugly genetic disorder. Preston's bioterror casualties bit off their lips, chewed fingers, plucked out eyes, squirted fluids and mewled like kittens with their tails caught in a door. Unbelievable and disturbed, it was a bestseller, good stuff for President Bill Clinton who apparently felt it was one appropriate example among a number of justifications upon which to gin up fear.

The Cobra Event was a fantasy - but anything delivered via the news, no matter how fantastical, is legitimate. If a feat is impossible, it's not an obstacle. American emergency responders and terror experts drill for things that can't happen on a regular basis.

Before the New Year, one such drill ran in State College, Pennsylvania, based on the idea that ricin would be put in the water in time for a collegiate game of pigskin. Readers should know States College's Beaver Stadium holds over 100,000. On Saturdays in season, State College becomes the third largest city in Pennsylvania. A terrorist team striking it with something like ricin, through the water, would have to envision contaminating a water supply of some goodly size.

We can do some figures on the back of an envelope to show the how impractical it is, even if we toss out the reality that Penn State football fans bring most of their beverages, like bottled and canned beer, in their SUVS and RVs.

We start with the work of Porton Down whose scientists conveniently worked out the science of terrorist ricin-making during the trial of Kamel Bourgass. Bourgass's ricin recipe, they determined, starting from five grams of castor seed, would not be a fatal dose, but would cause nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

Now assume you want to hit a water supply serving 150,000 people. How should that five grams be apportioned to sicken the public? Per cup or per pint? Keep in mind an awful lot of water will go down the toilet and into the drain during showers. One has to aim big. Assuming the low ball estimate of 150,000 pints, Biochemical Ali needs, at the very least, 750 kilograms of castor mash, or about 1650 pounds. Make it a ton to allow for modest losses in milling.

This means you must install a castor mill where none exists and then figure out how to get a dumptruck of bean mash evenly distributed within a central water supply. The bean mash is also filled with a certain amount of insolubles. These will turn to a gluey glop when they hit water, necessitating stirring - hoo boy (!), a lot of stirring, a godlike amount of agitation. It's not salt.

So much for that plan! Now one understands the attraction of car bombs.

Moving on to polonium, you mistakenly thought the Litvinenko assassination was a British affair. Wrong, it's about us.

Starting with the New York Times and traveling subsequently through the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, each major newspaper did a big feature on how terrorists could use polonium. A new terror weapon was invented, the smoky bomb, to replace the obsolete dirty bomb. A smoky bomb, as told by the New York Times op-ed page, is a dirty bomb with the new flavor, polonium. Every one of the newspaper articles used the similar sources, most notably Peter D. Zimmerman, who has campaigned to more tightly regulate polonium.

"Radiation safety experts calculate that a single gram of polonium could sicken 100 million people, killing half," wrote the Los Angeles Times. A smoky bomb "particularly in a crowded, enclosed space, could cause numerous fatalities and sow widespread panic," wrote the Post. Poloniumize pure American water and food and "the consequences could be even more dire."

Are there hints of smoky bomb or polonium in the water threats? Unimportant. The commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission claimed that American's shouldn't tremble over it but was ignored. He was not with the program. ®

George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.

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