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Milling anthrax: Just a click away?
10 Nov 2001
It has been widely reported in recent days that only highly sophisticated scientists could mill anthrax spores into a powder fine enough to enter human lungs and cause a fatal infection.
Milling anthrax: Just a click away?
By Timothy P. Carney
It has been widely reported in recent days that only highly sophisticated scientists could mill anthrax spores into a powder fine enough to enter human lungs and cause a fatal infection. But machines capable of doing just that are widely used in legitimate industries today. They are not particularly expensive machines, and can be purchased over the Internet.
On October 17, Dr. Richard Spertzel, who served as a UN biological weapons inspector in Iraq, said on PBS’s “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer”: “The access to the equipment, if you know what it is needed, anybody could theoretically buy it, it’s not specialized made, it’s commercially available, but it’s a very specific type, perhaps and hopefully not known to most people.”
But if the September 11 terrorists were shrewd enough to learn the skills to pilot Boeing jets at commercial flight schools, is it realistic to assume they were not shrewd enough to do the simple research necessary to find where high-grade milling equipment is available in the marketplace?
A few days of investigating by this reporter suggests that it is not. Aadvanced Machinery in Dearborn, Mich., for example, sells on its website machines designed for milling pigments, ceramics and pharmaceuticals to fine powder. One such machine, the media mill, uses tiny glass or ceramic ball bearings to grind these materials to under 5 microns, small enough to make it into the human lung.
Tom Suhy, sales manager for Aadvanced Machinery, told Human Events, “I wouldn’t see why you couldn’t use it for anthrax.” He estimates that between 50 and 75 dealers in the United States sell machinery that could grind anthrax to the point where it could get airborne. Anthrax, the disease, is caused by the bacteria bacillus anthracis . The bacillus is a rodlike bacterium poisonous to the human body.
When conditions become hostile to the anthrax bacillus if it runs out of food, becomes too cold, too dry, too low in carbon dioxide it resorts to a defense mechanism. The DNA and other essential cell matter gather together near the middle of the cell, and a hard wall forms around this cluster. This is the spore. As if in hibernation, the anthrax spore waits inside the carcass of a now-dead cell, waiting for more hospitable conditions. Sporulation is key for the bacteria’s survival in nature, and also key for its use as a weapon.
Anthrax spores range in size from half a micron to 1 micron, while the active anthrax bacillus usually ranges from one to two microns in diameter and from three to four microns in length. A five-micron particle is small enough to make it past the human respiratory system’s defenses and into the lungs. (GOP Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is a medical doctor, has said that the anthrax particles in the letter sent by terrorists to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office were between 1.5 and 3 microns in diameter.)
Terrorists, then, who can culture anthrax colonies either from an infected animal or a laboratory would need to mill the sporulated cells down to 5 microns to be able to infect people with inhalational anthrax.
Commercially advertised devices appear fully capable of performing this chore.
Sturtevant, Inc., of Hanover, Mass., sells on its website all types of crushers, millers and grinders. The Micronizer, which is used in the production of ceramics, pharmaceuticals and propellants, can mill materials to sizes ranging from 100 microns to less than a micron, according to Charlotte Stevens, office manager at Sturtevant, Inc.
Dr. Elizabeth Elder, biology chairman at Georgia Southwestern State University, reviewed the material on Sturt-evant’s website, and told Human Events, “If the Micronizer can get particles down to a micron, it can aerosolize anthrax.”
Sturtevant officials did not respond to phone, and e-mail inquiries asking them directly whether they believed their machine was capable of milling anthrax.
On its website, Sturtevant lists these “applications,” among others, for the Micronizer: “Agricultural chemicals,” “Pharmaceutical, cosmetics,” “Propellants.” It says that among the benefits of using the Micronizer are: “Narrow particle size distribution,” “No product contamination.”
Gilson, another company that also advertises on the Internet, carries a variety of jar mills, which are slower, but just as thorough as media mills. They can mill materials down to sizes ranging from 1 to 50 microns. The bench-top version (18 by 24 inches and only 2.5 inches tall) costs only $1,546. The most expensive version runs $6,470. These machines, like the Micronizer, can process a wide range of materials.
Gilson also sells Fritsch Pulverisette Planetary Micro-Mills, which can grind particles down to 1 micron and can be used for biological studies, according to a Canadian website that sells the same product.
Gilson’s product manager, Michael Smith, expressed doubt that the Fritsch products could be used for anthrax milling, but he would not rule it out. He suspected the machines would crush the spores, although he did not know how hard anthrax spores are. Dr. Elder said the spores are incredibly hard.
Aadvanced Machinery sells on its web page new and used mills. Sales manager Suhy said a new media mill might sell for $20,000 and used one could go for “eight to ten grand.” Because different machines use different milling methods, close inspection of the spores could give clues as to which mill, if any, the terrorists used.
An October 25 report in the Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, indicated that the “anthrax spores that contaminated the air in Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle’s office had been treated with a chemical additive so sophisticated that only three nations [the U.S., Iraq and the former Soviet Union] are thought to have been capable of making it.” This raised the question of whether the spores were run through a mill at all.
(Dr. Spertzel told the Post in the same article that Iraq used “a novel one-step process that involved drying spores in the presence of aluminum-based clays or silica powders.” Spertzel did not return calls from Human Events. But the Post article quoted a government official as saying “that the totality of the evidence in hand suggests that it is unlikely that the spores were originally produced in the former Soviet Union or Iraq.”)
Aadvanced Machin-ery’s Suhy said there are no U.S. export controls on the milling products, because they have so many legitimate uses and are also widely available overseas. Commerce Department officials did not return calls on the subject.
In 1999, to demonstrate the ease with which a dedicated terrorist could make lethal anthrax, the Department of Defense launched “Project Bachus.” Judith Miller told the project’s story in the September 4 New York Times, a week before the terrorist hijackings.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency gave a small group of scientists approximately a million dollars. Posing as regular civilians, these scientists built an anthrax laboratory. Then using a harmless stand-in for anthrax, they were able to produce lethal sizes of the spores with the help of a milling machine they bought from a retailer like those that now advertise their completely legitimate wares on the worldwide web.
For more information go to humaneventsonline.com