Expert notes difficulty of bioterror attacks, but says look at trucking

July 1, 1993

Expert notes difficulty of bioterror attacks, but says look at trucking

By Joe Baker

By Joe Baker

Senior Editor

The likelihood of a widespread anthrax attack in this country is greatly exaggerated, according to a hazardous materials expert at Southern Illinois University.

Erik Talley said most such fears are unjustified. “Certainly, bio and chemical terrorism is a credible threat,” said Talley, who is associate director of SIU’s Center for Environmental Health and Safety, “but it’s not very practical for terrorists who want immediate results.”

He pointed to crop dusters, for example. “Sure, someone could load up a crop duster with deadly chemicals or biologicals, but those agents would have to be spread over a very large, populated area to have any chance of causing a lot of harm,” Talley said. “Getting a crop duster to fly over a large city at a low altitude just isn’t very probable.”

Talley said it’s more likely that terrorists would spray deadly chemicals onto crops, but he believes the U.S. Agriculture Department or the Food and Drug Administration, who are responsible for the safety of our food supply, would be quick to quarantine contaminated food.

So far as attacking the nation’s water supply, Talley said that’s a possibility, but damage would be slight.

“Serious contamination would require a significant amount of material, and that would almost certainly be detected in the treatment process,” he said. “Smaller amounts probably wouldn’t be enough to cause any real harm,” he added.

Talley concedes that substances such as anthrax can cause much damage, but they are hard to make in large quantities. “Other materials, such as Sarin gas, are more deadly,” he said, “but again, it is very difficult to acquire these materials. And any persons handling this stuff would have to know what they’re doing in order to minimize the risks to themselves.

“There’s something to be concerned about regarding all the different ways that a terrorist might use biohazards in an attack. But since each method and each type of chemical or biological involves so many factors, it would be pretty difficult to carry off a successful, large-scale attack.”

Talley believes a neglected area, from a security standpoint, is the transport of hazardous materials shipped around the country by truck, train or barge.

“Benzene, cyanides, hydrofluoric acid, all can cause a great deal of damage; they’re very toxic,” he said. “And while all require shipping statements, there is no method to track this material while it’s being transported. That’s an area that needs some attention, especially since these materials pass through populated areas on a daily basis.”

Thousands of Americans have frantically searched out and bought gas masks. Talley said these masks are effective only if worn 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“If there is a bio-attack, we won’t have a clue that it’s coming,” Talley said. “Unless you walk around with a gas mask on all the time, it won’t do you any good. And if there is an attack, say on the East Coast, the material will be ineffective by the time it reaches the Midwest.”

Yet there is still plenty of reason to be concerned about bio-terrorism, he said, and he stated the U.S. is prepared to respond.

“The government has improved its response abilities a great deal in recent years,” Talley observed, “but there is still more that needs to be done. The attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon have increased awareness about the possibilities of bio-terrorism, and that’s probably one of the few good things to come out of the tragedy.”

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