Wednesday, August 23, 2006

You Could Die Any Second

Here’s a story on the BBC about how easy it would be for terrorists to poison our food supply: just a tiny bit of botulism in a milk truck, for example, could kill a couple hundred thousand people.
Prof Wein found milk was particularly vulnerable to an attack. If someone were to put just 10 grams of botulinum toxin into a milk tanker, it could have devastating effects.

"If we didn't realise what was happening, half a million people would drink this milk... most of these would be poisoned, roughly half of them would die," he concluded.

Scary stuff, but critics said this was preposterous: obtaining even a tiny amount of toxin was a lot harder than Prof Wein suggested.

The article goes on to discuss how America’s agribusiness set-up — with a relatively few companies overseeing huge megafarms — keeps our food supply more concentrated than most, and thus more vulnerable to attack. Congressmen from farm states are getting anti-terrorist funding for their districts, while Congressmen from other states call this pork.

I’m not sure what it is. Food attacks might be plausible, but I’ve got a major city reservoir a couple of miles away from my house and every day thousands of cars drive on the low road that crosses it. It’s just as plausible that a terrorist could put a small but deadly toxin in the city water supply and kill as many people as botulism in a milk truck. Should we spend anti-terrorism dollars defending the reservoir? There’s more than just the road involved; there’s all the parkland and private property on the shores of the reservoir. And then there’s the hundreds of other reservoirs in my state to consider. And then the rest of America.

How do we decide which terror threats are serious enough to guard against?


Anonymous Alex said...

One thing to keep in mind is that there are lots of good reasons, aside from fear of terrorism, to keep unauthorized people from mucking around with water reservoirs, dairy farms, ventilation systems in large buildings, etc. And so in most cases you can't just walk into these places.

Of course, criminals are good at getting into places where they aren't supposed to be, but we should start by recognizing that we aren't starting from zero here.

Also, we may have to recognize that it just isn't possible to put TSA-style guards at every single place where poison might conceivably be delivered. So we have to accept that the best way to defeat terrorist networks is to infiltrate the networks, rather than freaking out and securing every single imaginable target in the US.

Also, we have one other thing going for us: While criminals can indeed get into places where they aren't supposed to be, delivering a poison adds a whole new layer of complexity to the problem. They need to know exactly which valve to open, which panel to unscrew, etc. It isn't rocket science, but none of these things have a big sign on them that says "WARNING: IF THIS VALVE IS LEFT OPEN POISON CAN BE INSERTED."

It's certainly achievable, but when you think about what's required to achieve it, it's clear that there would probably have to be some sort of planning, surveillance, and rehearsal. This means more chances for them to call attention to themselves.

A disciplined and patient group could certainly do it, but the point is that now we're talking about a task that not just any angry loser can pull off on the first try. We're talking about a task that requires time, and rehearsal, and probably the involvement of some experienced people (people who are likely to be on the radar) to guide the actions of their less experienced underlings.

I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's certainly not the sort of thing that any old idiot can do.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

But how can we "keep unauthorized people from mucking around with reservoirs," Alex? That one reservoir near my house--a major road crosses it. I drive it every day when I go to work. And I could easily toss something out of my car window and have it land in the reservoir. To make just that one reservoir inaccessible to bad guys we'd have to close that road (and build a new one elsewhere), and use eminent domain to confiscate the property of the hundreds of homeowners living on the shores of the reservoir.

Just here in the tiny state of Connecticut there are dozens of roads, and probably thousands of homes, right next to or on top of reservoirs. Connecticut is one of the richest states in the country, but there's no way we could afford to make all of our reservoirs impossible to access. Even if we resorted to outright confiscation to take all the properties next to the reservoirs, we still have to pay for the roads, and the only way to keep the reservoirs inaccessible would be to build giant walls around them.

6:56 AM  
Anonymous A moose said...

But how can we "keep unauthorized people from mucking around with reservoirs," Alex?

You can't.

That said, realize that you're not drinking water directly from the reservoir, otherwise the bird population would be doing a lot more damage to humans in terms of disease, if nothing else. Water is treated, and chlorinated, specifically to remove biological pathogens. Furthermore, it's filtered first, and is monitored, at least in general, for a number of items, including heavy metals (arsenic being one).

Next, you have the distribution system, after chlorination, which has its own chlorine residual concentration specifically to make sure any pathogens that get into the system post treatment don't get out without something.

Realize also that one reservoir is not typically the only storage, especially for a large population area. There are towers, other reservoirs, etc, which will all provide water which will dilute the concentration of whatever is added. They may not even be pulling off that particular reservoir at the time.

Add to that, if you have one, a house filter or faucet filter. I don't currently maintain one, as we're pulling off wells for the area I'm in, going through a tower, but I have with every other municipal system. A carbon filter will remove organic chemicals which might have made it that far, in addition to a granular filter used for removing sediment. If you have a water softener, you have an ion exchange mechanism to further remove any inorganic chemicals.

Finally, you have the use in your favor. The average person actually ingests perhaps a gallon of water per day. However, flushing the toilet, even the low flows, dumps a gallon and a half each time. There are still some older toilets out there, which do much more. My point is that of all the water in the reservoir, you're probably looking at a 1:10 dilution at a minimum with the water in the pipes and other storage, and probably another 1:10 in terms of concentration actually ingested. That means that even if they were able to introduce a toxic level of something which could make it by the treatment plant, you're not going to be exposed to much. If you use a house filter (I would recommend one for everyone, unless you take the time to spend with the city engineer and understand the water treatment for what you drink, and know enough to make an informed decision for yourself) you're that much better off.

Then again, we've discussed my disaster preparedness bent, so I always have about 50L of water stored up, which gives me three days for each person in the immediate family (given that I do have children), even without going to the portable filter and the pond down the street. ::shrug:: Hey, I'm an engineer who is a martial artist with military training, I think of things most people wouldn't even dream of.

Just to comment, on terrorism, one of the cultural things working in your personal favor is that they like targets that are representative icons. Meaning, it's much more attractive to attack a symbol of the US economy, ie the WTC, or the US govt, ie the Pentagon, than suburban or urban CT. Though basically evil, they're not stupid, and realize that if they engage in wanton killing for the sake of killing, they're going to really piss us off, then the true "war" will start.

8:00 AM  
Anonymous a moose said...

and the only way to keep the reservoirs inaccessible would be to build giant walls around them.

Afterthought...or rooves, by turning it into a large cistern. Even a simple plastic over metal ribs would prevent what you're talking about, or at least alert that something was thrown/dropped/shot through. For that matter, a floating pool type cover would work also, as long as it didn't drain back into the water without an inspection of whatever accumulated on top.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Brad Warbiany said...

My question is why they're worried about a little botulinum toxin in milk. I think it's a conspiracy... After all, some people in Hollywood are quite happy to have it injected directly into their faces!

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

For some reason I was thinking of water towers, not outdoor reservoirs. Reading in a hurry, I guess.

Anyway, I think it's clear that the moose explained far better than I could the amount of dilution involved, and the possibility for filtering even many organics.

As I understand it, poisons that are potent enough that even tiny amounts can kill a whole city are very rare. My guess is that the closest you'll come to that is methylated mercury, and that's so dangerous that the terrorists handling it could easily kill themselves (very quickly) before they even make it to the reservoirs. Although even then, if there is monitoring for heavy metals they'd pick up the mercury.

I don't have any answers here, maybe the right poison in the right quantity could indeed do the job, but it isn't as easy as some would make it out to be. I suspect that most attacks would require industrial quantities of unusual chemicals. Non-industrial customers buying unusual chemicals in industrial quantities would attract suspicion.

THen again, I could be wrong.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

10g of BoTox might not seem like much, but getting 100 micrgrams of purified toxin from Sigma will run you about $800 (I happen to have the catalog handy). I would be shocked if they have much more than a gram or two in inventory at any given time, and that probably not all in one place.

Beside, if you ordered $80,000 worth of botulinim toxin at once, I am sure you would raise a flag or two.

Incidentally--those are research-grade prices. The pharmacuetical grade stuff that people stick in their faces is going to be much, much more expensive (and tightly controlled).

Never mind the fact that since it's a protein, it would start being broken down the minute it was dissolved in anything containing proteases--such as milk.

9:32 PM  

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