10 August 2005, Volume
CZECH SCIENTISTS HAIL DISCOVERY TO NEUTRALIZE MUSTARD GAS.
Czech scientists are touting what they describe as a significant biochemical breakthrough with the development of an environmentally friendly enzyme-based technology that eliminates the lethal effects of mustard gas.
While such banned substances have figured primarily in traditional conflicts since their inception, the global threat of extremist-fueled terrorism arguably makes the findings especially timely.
The results could help neutralize mustard gas -- also known as Yperite after the Belgian town where it was first used in World War I -- in battlefield situations, but could also prove vital if the agent were ever used in a terrorist attack.
Scientists from the Protein Engineering Group of the Science Faculty at Masaryk University in Brno along with the Czech Military Technical Institute of Protection -- working on an assignment from NATO -- announced their results following laboratory testing nearly two years after they began research on the project in the fall of 2003.
The primary incentives for creating a decontaminating agent for mustard gas are to defend against any possible terrorist attack and to help dispense of aging stockpiles and quantities of the deadly gas that have been dumped into the environment. Czech scientists said mustard gas's active life is up to 100 years when it is stored in an airproof container.
"The enzyme [employed through our method] reacts within minutes, is able to split several molecules of mustard gas per second, and its decontaminating effect is expected to last for hours at an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius," Dr. Jiri Damborsky of Masaryk University, who worked on the project along with two other scientists and a biochemistry student, told RFE/RL. "It has a longevity period of one year when stored at 4 degrees Centigrade."
No terrorist groups have used mustard gas to date, although some observers believe that Al-Qaeda attempted to purchase the ingredients to produce the agent from laboratories in Afghanistan.
According to Colonel Dr. Jiri Kassa, who heads the Czech Defense University Toxicology Department, the essential obstacle to using such a gas lies in the difficulty of disseminating the agent. "The best means of disseminating Yperite or nerve gases is through air-conditioning, by a sprinkler system from a plane, or through water," Kassa said. "Fortunately, terrorists face great difficulties in accessing all of these means of dispersion."
He noted that another factor presumably discouraging terrorists' use of such gases against civilian populations is that the effects and impact on people's psyches are much weaker and slower than more dramatic attacks. "The effect of a bomb blowing up is immediate. The explosion has immediate victims, the loud noise affects people's psyches and behavior," Kassa said. "The quiet dispersion of gas would hardly do the same."
In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo group used sarin gas in its attack on the Tokyo metro, killing 12 and injuring as many as 6,000 people. Experts believe the attack highlighted in particular the difficulty of dispersing sarin gas -- or any other gas -- by a terrorist group. On the other hand, it arguably served as evidence that terrorists seek, first and foremost, government attention and publicity. Others believe bomb attacks have become too much an "ordinary" terrorist act, while a gas attack would draw much closer attention in large part because it would be so out of the ordinary -- and because the harm it could inflict on people is so visibly atrocious. In fact, the Aum Shinrikyo group gained global attention through its attack a decade ago.
Terrorism experts concede that mustard gas is easy to produce. Damborsky told RFE/RL that "any chemical laboratory with average equipment can easily produce Yperite."
Czech Defense Ministry spokesman Jan Pejsek confirmed that production of Yperite is also comparatively cheap, depending on the desired purity of the final product.
Kassa described the lethal effects of mustard gas: "One and a half grams of Yperite dispersed into 1 cubic meter of space [and] inhaled by a person for more than 1 minute carries a 50 percent risk of death. If death does not occur, severe permanent symptoms certainly will." He also noted that production of 1 kilogram of Yperite would cost no more than a few hundred Czech crowns (100 crowns=$4.15), but protecting those who produce it raises the cost to 10,000 crowns.
Mustard Gas's History
Mustard gas was first used on a battlefield during World War I by Germany near the Belgian city of Ypres in September 1917. It is a deadly chemical agent that damages skin, eyes, lungs, and digestive organs by causing severe blistering that can lead to organ failure and death.
Some 400,000 soldiers were exposed to mustard gas during World War I. The fatality rate was 3 percent, while many of those who escaped death suffered permanent damage to their eyes and other after-effects.
Mustard gas was also used in the Spanish-Moroccan, Italian-Ethiopian, Japanese-Chinese, and Egyptian-Yemeni conflicts.
The most recent use of mustard gas is widely believed to have been on the orders of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who allegedly used the poison gas against Kurdish civilians in Northern Iraq in 1988 during the infamous Anfal campaign. According to reports at the time, some 5,000 people died and another 65,000 were left with severe skin and respiratory diseases, while the victims or their children also suffered from abnormally high cancer rates and birth defects.
Saddam Hussein also used mustard gas, tabun, VX, sarin, and cyanide against Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
Large amounts of mustard gas from Nazi stockpiles were dumped into the Baltic and North seas after World War II. In time, with polymerization, the agent can take on the appearance of amber, putting anyone fooled by it at risk of severe health problems.
The recent Czech discovery could help render such deadly waste harmless. The discovery of the enzyme-based technology to decontaminate Yperite is seen as an important step in an ongoing effort to decontaminate all chemical and biological agents that is being coordinated by a special working group within NATO, the Czech Defense Ministry's Pejsek told RFE/RL.
Damborsky said that -- as with many projects NATO assigns to member states -- the research for this project was funded largely by the Czech Defense Ministry, with minimal assistance from NATO. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a simple and fast means to apply the enzyme in emergency situations.
The scientific team has already applied for a grant from the European Union, as well as from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), to complete its research and register the product.
"Even if we are unable to get the full funding from the European Union or the NIAID, we will continue with the research," Damborsky told RFE/RL.
New NATO Tool
The advantage of the recently discovered enzyme lies in the fact that it should not damage the contaminated material to which it is applied, as have previous agents. Damborsky claims in the patent application that when previously available agents were used, corrosion appeared on the surfaces of the decontaminated material -- and that the environment could be seriously affected if the decontaminants came into contact with water or soil.
Once research is completed and the enzyme certified, it will likely be used in the form of a gel or foam applied by a decontaminating sprinkler system or a spraying unit.
Dr. Frantisek Oplustil from the Military Institute said the enzyme could be used to decontaminate the surfaces of technical equipment, structures, human and animal skin, and the environment. (Tereza Nemcova)
'COULD I PLEASE SEE YOUR BIO ID?'
Is the era of the conventional passport ending? The current trend points to the biometric identification card as the world's future international identification (ID) card that would be used to enter foreign countries, to make financial transactions at money machines, and as an international driver's license. It could also possibly prevent a terrorist from being allowed to enter a subway or a soccer stadium.
French law requires that all citizens must prove their identity to police or administration officials upon request. They can do so by presenting a driver's license or a passport -- even one which is expired -- or call in a witness to vouch for their identity.
Beginning in 2006 all French citizens will begin receiving bio passports that will carry a microchip containing a digitized photo and fingerprints. In 2007, they will be issued internal ID cards will slowly be replaced with similar features built into a new credit card-like ID.
The bio identification card, according to some of its proponents, could be the answer to the needs of the security officials who are in the unenviable position of trying to protect millions of people each day from a terrorist attack.
The bio ID is basically a "smart card" but, instead of a magnetic strip, has an imbedded microchip with up to 8 kilobytes of RAM, 346 kilobytes of ROM, 256 kilobytes of programmable ROM, and a 16-bit microprocessor.
According to the IDG News Service of 12 April, the new French ID card will contain several kinds of information that are isolated into distinct blocks. The credit card-sized ID will have the bearer's names, date of birth, and address printed on it. The signature, photograph, and fingerprints will be encrypted and accessible only to officials. Another block will authenticate the card as genuine but contain no further information.
The IDG News Service added: "The new [French] identity card will also hold a digital signature for signing official documents such as tax declarations or private correspondence, and even a private storage space in which cardholders can store other information of their own choosing."
The person carrying such an ID would be asked to insert the card into a "reader" which would then link up to a central database, such as the Schengen Information System (SIS) II, to see if there is any record of the person having an Interpol arrest warrant against him/her or if the person has had contacts with known terrorists. Perhaps even show any domestic transgressions -- something as minor as an unpaid traffic ticket. If the holder of the ID is "clean" he/she could then proceed.
This, in theory, would make France more secure and the new ID would create a biometric Maginot Line and serve as a kind of high-tech Sherlock Holmes all rolled into one.
All For One?
The above model is for French citizens, although the bio ID card is being designed to one day become universal and could also be used as national health insurance cards as well as for a variety of other purposes.
Such a system, its proponents claim, would not only vastly simplify the current maze of procedures and requirements needed to move around, but could be a powerful tool in the hands of law enforcement and counterterrorism organizations.
According to the "Asia Times" of 2 October 2004, computer chip-embedded ID cards that store and transact data are big business. "Unit shipments were over 2 billion cards in 2003 and the Asia-Pacific region alone accounted for about 34 percent of the volume," the "Asia Times" reported, adding that Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, and South Korea all are aiming to introduce some form of smart-card IDs.
One of the current major drawbacks of the bio ID systems is that not all members of the European Union, not to mention the rest of the world, have agreed to issue national bio ID cards to their citizens. Germans are issued a "Personalausweis" at the age of 16 which they are required to have but don't have to have on them.
The German parliament's Office of Technology Assessment issued a report on 9 April 2004 on the possible introduction of bio ID cards in Germany. "At this stage," the report warns, "introducing biometric identifiers in ID cards and passports would be like performing a 'gigantic laboratory test.' A number of big question marks remain, regarding the technology to be selected, the concrete system requirements, the issuance and distribution logistics and, perhaps more importantly, the social acceptance of biometrics" (see report at http://europa.eu.int/idabc/en/document/2406/336).
And there are many others who view bio ID cards as violating civil liberties such a right to privacy. Privacy International, an NGO dedicated to protecting individual privacy, has written on its website (http://www.privacyinternational.org) that: "While it is true that cards containing non-sensitive data are less likely to be used against the individual, cards are often alleged to be the vehicle for discriminatory practices. Police who are given powers to demand IDs invariably have consequent powers to detain people who do not have the card, or who cannot prove their identity. Even in such advanced countries as Germany, the power to hold such people for up to 24 hours is enshrined in law. The question of who is targeted for ID checks is left largely to the discretion of police."
The United Kingdom -- like the United States -- does not have a national ID card and parliament only recently passed an act requiring one to be instituted. According to the "The Guardian" of 27 July 2005, anyone who fails to keep an appointment to register for the new national ID card will incur a fine of �2,500 ($4,450).
In December 2004, the EU adopted a measure saying that all EU passports should have fingerprints, as was required by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN body which in 2003 agreed on an initial bio standard for passports, including a digital photograph and digital fingerprints.
The 188 contracting states of the ICAO agreed to begin issuing ICAO standard machine readable passports no later than 10 April 2010, according to the organization's website at http://www.icao.org.
The London bombings on 7 July perhaps gave the EU a necessary push to speed matters up regarding the bio IDs. On 11 July, the president of the EU circulated a document titled "Minimum common standards for national identity cards," which called for the use of biometrics. It included a provision which would protect data stored on identity cards but insure that it could be read by officials in other EU member states.
The common European bio passport/ID card has met with practical problems -- not all member states are yet capable of producing them and most would have to purchase the costly compatible scanners to read the passports. Despite these drawbacks, the EU common bio passport and ID card is slowly taking shape.
In April, a consortium of companies led by Hewlett-Packard announced the signing of a contract with the European Commission to develop a "high-quality technology model" for the next generation of the SIS II and the Visa Information System (VIS). The new system is intended to be a far more pervasive one with the VIS system becoming biometric. SIS II is intended to be fully functional in 2007.
Coupled with future bio ID cards, the SIS II could significantly upgrade the Schengen zone's security system.
The London subway bombings showed security officials that biometrics will not provide a foolproof way of stopping terrorists. The four London bombers who died in the act were crystal clean -- they had no police records and had they had bio ID cards, they would most likely have passed any card inspection. In order to stop them, their backpacks would still need to have been checked, at which time they might or might not have been tempted to detonate their bombs.
For the system to function properly, a number of overlapping security measures must be in place -- physical checks of the baggage coupled with reasonably efficient explosive-sniffing devices along with better intelligence that can be fed into a central database that is made available to the person on the spot who is checking the bio ID.
The bio ID system is only as good as the information that is fed into it. If the flow of information stops or is somehow manipulated, it might disable the system. It is hoped that bio IDs will be difficult to forge, but experience has shown that anything electronic is vulnerable to attack and deception, therefore overlapping layers of protection will remain essential components of a functional security perimeter for years to come. (Roman Kupchinsky)