Case report of a severe sarin poisoning, 1952

Since there’s been so much lately on the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, I thought some of you might be interested in reading an old Army report of an individual who got a snootful of sarin after a massive aerial spray test at the lovely Dugway Proving Ground. Bottom line: walk up to a pool of sarin without any protection, and you’re gonna have a bad day. 


More videos claim chemical weapon use in Syria

Thought I’d come out of dormancy for a moment to post something on Syria. Here’s a short review of the indicators of CW use in the following recent videos:

Q: Could sarin or chlorine have been used against Syrian patients seen in the source videos?

A: The fewest indicators were seen against sarin in the source material. The single indicator against sarin comes from hearsay.





Low consciousness; staring, vacant



Frothy exudate



Muscle twitching



Possible small rocket casing









Bodies w/o visible wounds



Smell of chlorine


  • There are 4 indicators not likely for chlorine.
  • There is 1 indicator not likely for sarin and 1 indicator inconclusive (unknown).
  • There are 4 indicators not likely for no CW.  Some indicators supporting no CW were selected because they could result from being close enough to a conventional weapons explosion to experience shock, anxiety, and dust inhalation.

Conclusion: of the possibilities considered, these videos most likely show patients affected with a CW nerve agent or organophosphate chemical based on the fewest indicators against it.  

I did not attempt to consider when or where these patients were videoed. Key assumptions are that the videos are recent, were taken in Syria, and were not faked. 


First let me say that I am not back from my sudden departure from the blogosphere, and I do not have an ETA for when I plan to be regularly blogging again. However, maybe as something of a tease, I do have a link to pass along to Molecule of the Day’s post on sarin.

Who among you can point out, without giving away anything you shouldn’t, what’s wrong with the post?

Blogging break

The blog will probably be dormant for a while due to an emergency.

FBI releases documents on Amerithrax investigation

The main site is here. I’m still absorbing it but so far I’ve found this document pretty juicy—read it on your own, I just don’t have the time today to pull out the goodies and post them here.

Based on DNA sequencing it looks as though there’s not really any question as to the source being USAMRIID.  So for those of us who have kept an open mind about international terrorism in this case, we have our answer.  But as some of Ivins’ coworkers have pointed out, the connection to him personally remains circumstantial.  Nevertheless, the circumstances look very, very bad.

Oh and if you don’t feel like opening the document and reading it, maybe this will tempt you.  It’s a poem Bruce Ivins wrote in December 2001.

Poem by Bruce Ivins

Poem by Bruce Ivins

Spertzel: wrong on weaponized anthrax

So Richard Spertzel, former U.N. weapons inspector, had this to say in WSJ:

Information released by the FBI over the past seven years indicates a product of exceptional quality. The product contained essentially pure spores. The particle size was 1.5 to 3 microns in diameter. There are several methods used to produce anthrax that small. But most of them require milling the spores to a size small enough that it can be inhaled into the lower reaches of the lungs. In this case, however, the anthrax spores were not milled.

What’s more, they were also tailored to make them potentially more dangerous. According to a FBI news release from November 2001, the particles were coated by a “product not seen previously to be used in this fashion before.” Apparently, the spores were coated with a polyglass which tightly bound hydrophilic silica to each particle. That’s what was briefed (according to one of my former weapons inspectors at the United Nations Special Commission) by the FBI to the German Foreign Ministry at the time.

Another FBI leak indicated that each particle was given a weak electric charge, thereby causing the particles to repel each other at the molecular level. This made it easier for the spores to float in the air, and increased their retention in the lungs.

Um, no.  I’ll trust a peer-reviewed assessment over some policy-pressurized briefing, thank you.

According to the FBI scientist who analyzed the anthrax letters, Douglas Beecher, it was NOT “weaponized.” He published this in Applied and Environmental Microbiology in 2006.

Individuals familiar with the compositions of the powders in the letters have indicated that they were comprised simply of spores purified to different extents (6). However, a widely circulated misconception is that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production. This idea is usually the basis for implying that the powders were inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone (3, 6, 12; J. Kelly, Washington Times, 21 October 2003; G. Gugliotta and G. Matsumoto, The Washington Post, 28 October 2002). The persistent credence given to this impression fosters erroneous preconceptions, which may misguide research and preparedness efforts and generally detract from the magnitude of hazards posed by simple spore preparations.

Purification of spores may exacerbate their dissemination to some extent by removing adhesive contaminants and maximizing the spore concentration. However, even in a crude state, dried microbial agents have long been considered especially hazardous. Experiments mimicking laboratory accidents have demonstrated that simply breaking vials of lyophilized bacterial cultures creates concentrated and persistent aerosols (4, 8). The potential for propagating disease with crude lyophilized material is illustrated by an outbreak of 24 cases of Venezuelan equine encephalitis throughout three floors of a Moscow virology institute. These infections were caused when vials containing dried infected mouse brain were accidentally broken on a stairwell landing and were spread by air currents and foot traffic (11).

Can we just put this to rest? Dry it, grind it up. It’s good enough for envelope dissemination. Poof!

Biological surety—would you pass?

For those few out there seething with conspiracy theories about how the government has framed Bruce Ivins with the Amerithrax murders, I gotta tell ya, it’s not looking good for your side at this point but it’s not entirely in the bag yet.

He’s been under the microscope, so to speak, since 2006.  How they kept that a secret I’ll never know, considering they were like a sieve with Hatfill.  Anyhoo, a few key tidbits are trickling out that are adding up to what would have been a lifetime prison cell with Ivins’ name on it. Here are a few points I horked from Global Security Newswire, with some of my comments:

“New and sophisticated scientific tools”…helped the FBI better compare anthrax strains used in the mailings to samples at various U.S. biodefense facilities, said sources familiar with the investigation (Washington Post I, Aug. 2).

… “It had to do with the very specific characteristics in the DNA of the letters and what was in Bruce’s labs,” a government scientist familiar with the investigation said yesterday. “They were cultures he was personally responsible for.” (Lara Jakes Jordan, Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, Aug. 4).

Specifically, the strain that was analyzed from a flask in his lab had a certain string of 35 adenine bases that matched the DNA from spores taken from victims.

Investigators depended on largely circumstantial evidence to distinguish Ivins from at least nine others with access to the anthrax, the Times reported.

The FBI has obtained no proof that Ivins traveled drop off the anthrax mailings at their suspected delivery point at Princeton, N.J. However, investigators traced the prestamped envelopes used in the mailing to three Maryland post offices, including one where Ivins rented a post office box under a pseudonym.

Ivins was also believed to have stayed long past normal business hours at the Army laboratory around the time of the attacks.

I will tell you that nothing looks worse and raises red flags like staying very late in a secure area when no one else is around, for no apparent reason.

People close to Ivins said he was strongly devoted to developing vaccines that could help defend against a biological attack. They questioned whether he might be connected to the “Amerithrax” case, the Post reported.

“He was passionate about it — he really cared,” said one colleague who conducted research with Ivins. Another said: “Almost everybody … believes that he had absolutely nothing to do with Amerithrax.”

Hmmm. If someone did something he regretted but couldn’t report, he might dedicate himself to fixing it in order to assuage his guilt…just a personal speculation.  In any case, he seemed to be able to function at work without raising suspicions until he was committed on July 10th.

Still, Ivins retained his security clearance to work with deadly biological warfare agents until July 10, when he was barred from the Army site at the request of a counselor, the Post reported.

On that day, he attended a restricted meeting to discuss a bubonic plague vaccine being developed at the facility (Washington Post III, Aug. 4).

Revelations into Ivins’s troubled mental state have raised concerns that other workers with sensitive biodefense positions could be similarly unstable, AP reported.

Ivins had managed to slip past military attempts to screen out unstable personnel, and mental health evaluations are even less thorough at university and private research facilities, AP said.

Roughly 14,000 people are authorized to conduct work with “select agents,” biological agents that have weapon potential.

“You cannot persuade me there are not more disturbed or disgruntled persons with a political agenda in such a large group,” Rutgers University chemistry professor Richard Ebright said yesterday.

Uh, yeah.  There are lots of disturbed or disgruntled people out there, going through tough times in their lives, divorces, shitty bosses, or whatever.  When I was in the Nuclear Surety Program and supposedly subject to Thought Police and constant inspection of my lifestyle, I’m pretty sure I’ve never worked with a more psychotic group of rule-breaking, drunken misanthropes.  I suppose that’s what you get when you take a bunch of 20-something Army kids with all their dumb dramas and send them to a place where beer is a national staple food.

But there’s crazy in a fun way, there are folks who handle their stresses by letting off some steam, and then there’s totally bugfuck nuts. I’m still mystified that someone who was reportedly so deranged for so long could have been well regarded at work and not under suspicion at all while cheerily lyophilizing batches of anthrax slurry delivered from Dugway.  I swear I am getting to a point here.  The thing is, as I predicted, the murmur about dangerous scientists is building to a mild uproar and we don’t have any new answers to this problem.  All we have are the same old answers we’ve used for decades.

So as I sit here jamming to some head-banging Rammstein and pondering what constitutes acceptable behavior for a scientist working with select agents in an Army lab (my musical tastes probably disqualify me outright), I’m perusing the latest implementation of AR 50-1, Biological Surety, dated 28 July 2008. Here’s the part where someone’s personal assessment of you can make it or break it for you.

2–8. Other disqualifying factors
Any of the following traits, diagnoses, conditions, or conduct listed below may be grounds for the disqualification of an individual from the BPRP, based on the certifying official’s informed judgment.

d. Inappropriate attitude, conduct, or behavior. In determining reliability, the certifying official will conduct a careful and balanced evaluation of all aspects of an individual. Specific factors to consider include, but are not limited to—
(1) Negligence or delinquency in performance of duty.
(2) Conviction of, or involvement in, a serious incident indicating a contemptuous attitude toward the law, regulations, or other duly constituted authority. Serious incidents include, but are not limited to assault, sexual misconduct, financial irresponsibility, contempt of court, making false official statements, habitual violation of traffic laws, and domestic violence.
(3) Poor attitude or lack of motivation. Poor attitude can include arrogance, inflexibility, suspiciousness, hostility, flippancy toward BPRP responsibilities, and extreme moods or mood swings.
(4) Aggressive/threatening behavior toward other individuals.
(5) Attempting to conceal PDI [potentially disqualifying information] from certifying officials through false or misleading statements, or by willfully neglecting to report current PDI.

Hey, I’ve just disqualified my entire chain of command! Arrogant, hostile, inflexible, moody—I totally know that guy! This is why I’m skeptical about a so-called biological sciences code of ethics, as well.  First of all, the bad crazy ones pass just fine.  Look at that kook, Robert Hansen.  Second, really smart people are often just a tiny bit weird and quirky, in case you never noticed.  And often irritating.  Their not-as-smart bureaucratic managers tend to be about as interesting as cream of wheat. If the personality test is left up to them, they might disqualify anyone with an IQ over oatmeal.

What’s the solution? I. Don’t. Know. This might be a nice time for the NSABB to pipe in with some advice, since their charter includes “Professional codes of conduct for scientists and laboratory workers that can be adopted by professional organizations and institutions engaged in life science research.” Oh, there’s that code of ethics again.  But there are at least a couple of other bioscience advisory groups the government could ping for input, as well.  Their members should be anticipating the call.


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