Sunday, March 20, 2005


Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack which left twelve people dead. The agent used, Sarin, is one of the deadliest substances known to man, and can kill within a minute or two.

Among the three (chemical, biological and nuclear), I think that chemical warfare agents are the most dangerous in a way, because they are the easiest to make in the laboratory; a well trained chemistry PhD. student could purportedly make them in a week, with 'some' risk to his life of course.
That's why many common chemical compounds that can be used to make these are classified as controlled substances in the Sigma-Aldrich catalog, the largest supplier of lab chemicals in the world, and one which is used almost universally by every chemistry laboratory in the world. Unfortunately, chemists are clever, and I don't doubt that they can easily bypass these routes and make these deadly agents from even more common compounds. (For example, phosphoric acid could be one of these; it would be absurd to make it a controlled substance since it is used so commonly and in such large amounts)

A few years ago, this point was driven home. James Tour, a well-known chemist at Rice University actually proved that it is not difficult at all to manufacture these chemicals. He ordered all the compounds which would be necessary to produce sarin from Sigma-Aldrich. He did this over a long period of time so that it would appear innocuous. In the end, he had a battery of raw materials, which could make enough nerve gas to kill the inhabitants of an entire city. He finally posed with his 'treasure' for a well-known science magazine, sending alarm bells throughout the community, that led to better and closer scrutiny on the sale of these substances. In another test case, someone walked into three retail stores and simply bought the same material without any problem whatsoever...

What do we do, when death is simply a phone call away?


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