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DHS: beware stink-bomb touting terrorists

'Chemicals of interest' list smells fishy

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Unusual paranoia over chemical attack in the US takes many forms. It can be seen in a recent piece of trouble from the Department of Homeland Security, a long list of "chemicals of interest" it wishes to require all university settings to inventory.

"Academic institutions across the country claim they will have to spend countless hours and scarce resources on documenting very small amounts of chemicals in many different labs that are scattered across sometimes sprawling campuses," reported a recent Chemical & Engineering News, the publication of the American Chemical Society.

"For 104 chemicals on the list, the threshold is 'any amount.'"

An update to address university workload concerns is said to be scheduled for "early to mid-June."

However, before that happens, let's take a peek at the list.

If one has a little bit of background in chemical weapons synthesis, one can see DHS is possessed by the idea that terrorists might storm into universities and plunder chem labs for precursors to nerve gases.

Isopropyl methyl phosphonochloridate is to be inventoried in any amount. Although not specified, it is one potential ingredient on the road to sarin synthesis.

Zooming in on the list for its specific entry, a quick look up and down a few rungs shows a cluster of similar compounds, all of which are earmarked at "any amount" for the same reasons.

While some of it seems OK, there is some interior nagging that this is not entirely the case.

The combination of unusual organic precursors into nerve gases, for instance, is not nearly as easy to do as is generally thought by counter-terror experts.

Triethanolamine, also flagged at "any amount," can be used to produce mustard gas. However, it's also used commercially in detergents and many other products.

Bad air day

Nitric oxide, by way of another example, is of interest to DHS in "any amount." In the simple reaction caused by tossing a penny into a beaker of nitric acid, nitric oxide is formed and immediately combines with atmospheric oxygen to form the toxic red brown gas, nitrogen dioxide. The inclusion of it is simply a head scratcher since the particular activity doesn't really lend itself to the making of a terror weapon. It's more appropriately thought of as a compound that contributes to smog formation. Similarly earmarked is sulfur dioxide, the gas resulting when sulfur is burned. Air pollution, as far as is known, isn't useful to terrorists.

Another compound in the "any amount" catch all is hydrogen sulfide, the toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs.

Functionally, generating "any amounts" of hydrogen sulfide has always been part of an education in chemistry. Believe it or not, there was a time when generation of it was included as a spark to an interest in chemistry in children's store bought chemistry sets.

However, in the past fifteen years we've had the pleasure of publication of a number of poisons for ninnies books, among them Maxwell Hutchkinson's "The Poisoner's Handbook," published by Loompanics in 1988. Much of Hutchkinson was subsequently plagiarized into jihadist documents on chemical terror, among these being Abdel-Aziz's Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, which if found during terror investigations functionally works toward ensuring a stay in the dungeon for owners.

The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook contains an old hydrogen sulfide producing experiment. "It is very dangerous," its author states, not particularly accurately. "It can kill a person in thirty seconds."

Instead of meditating on the naiveté of the uneducated man who has never had a chemistry set, since 9/11 we have instead been plagued by terror assessors who are not chemists, mucking with regulation through the offices of DHS's science directorate.

To make the weirdness of this clear, hydrogen sulfide - like almost everything in the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, goes back to the materials in The Poisoner's Handbook.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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