Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Poor Man's Atomic Bomb

Nuclear warheads are prohibitively expensive to make - at least for most nations. Even with a sufficient knowledge base and enough enriched uranium, the investment in nuclear weapons is significant enough to keep these weapons out of the hands of all but a very few regimes. In fact a credible argument can be made that the large military budget of the Soviet Union (spent largely on nuclear weapons) was the cause of its collapse. 

This is not true of biological weapons which utilize deadly bacteria and viruses. Many of these can be grown in a Petri-dish, in chicken eggs, or in a fermentation tank; and then mass-produced by technicians drawn from a largely unskilled workforce. David Hoffman referred to these kinds of weapons as the “poor man’s atomic bomb”.

Among the chilling notes that have recently come to light from the Soviet Union’s Cold War deliberations on germ warfare are what appear to be comparative costs for causing human carnage (at least from the Soviet’s perspective). According to these estimates, conventional weapons costs around $2,000 for every life taken in battle. Nuclear weapons can do the same damage for $800. Chemical weapons cost only $60, and biological weapons have the unbelievably low ratio of 1:1 – that is $1 per death.     

How can germs be so cheap? The answer is simple: they are living organisms and can reproduce. Once their basic biological needs are understood and properly manipulated, growing germs is not much more complicated than producing night crawlers in a compost heap. Anybody can learn how to do it.

In fact there are thousands of organizations – ranging from high school biology classes to corporate laboratories – that grow micro-organisms every day. The size of an average yogurt-processing tank, for example, is big enough to produce weapons for a small country. Of course the ingredients are different, but the methods themselves can be eerily alike.

What makes this particularly un-nerving is the ubiquity of the technology. Fermentation tanks are not hard to find. And the knowledge of growing micro-organisms has become a classic science – easily mastered by the thousands of graduate students that flock to American universities from all over the world every year. You can rest assured that somewhere in the world right now, one of our enemies has a stockpile of these nasty critters and is just waiting to spread them around.   

The reality of these biological weapons became all too apparent just a month following the tragedies of 9/11. On October 15, 2001 a letter containing a white powder was opened in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Two days later the offices were closed, and then shuttered by October 20. When it was discovered that the powder contained anthrax spores (a deadly bacterium known to scientists as Bacillus anthracis) authorities checked everybody that had been close to the letter. Several individuals tested positive for the microbe. These and many others were treated immediately with an antibiotic known to be effective against the disease. Because of this quick response nobody from the Senate building died. 

Other letters were sent to NBC, ABC and CBS. The New York Post received one too as well as AMI (American Media, Inc. in Boca Raton, Florida) presumably targeting The National Enquirer. Robert Stevens, a mail worker at AMI, was to become the first fatality of the biological attacks. It is suspected that he was exposed to the contaminated letter on September 25. He died on October 5.

At least four other people died within the following days. Tomas Morris and Joseph Curseen (both postal workers in Washington, DC) died on October 21 and October 22 respectively. Kathy Nguyen of New York died on October 30, and Ottillie Lundgren of Connecticut died on November 21.

Their tragic deaths stunned America. Coming so soon after the suicide air attacks in New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania Americans weren’t sure what sort of prolonged terrorist assault they were to expect. But almost as suddenly as the anthrax was disseminated, the attacks stopped. Americans were fortunate that only five individuals lost their lives.

In hindsight the anthrax scare would seem pathetic if it weren’t for the five fatalities. The envelopes were over-filled (they were too obvious). The formulated carrier was crude. The delivery system (paper envelopes) could hardly be expected to deliver death to any more than just a few individuals. If it hadn’t been for the notes in the letters (announcing the end to America and Israel) it would almost seems as if the whole effort were a misguided prank from a high school gang carrying stolen anthrax. How naïve were these terrorists, anyway?

The more important question is: how naïve are we now – over a decade after the attacks? Are we ready for a more sophisticated attempt? The answer is: yes and no.

We have more antibiotics than we did before. Some of these have expired, and more need to be prepared. But at least we’re ahead of where we were. We also have better testing methods and equipment. At least in theory, infected individuals will be quickly identified and proper care can be provided. With many biological weapons, a quick response can save many lives. Even the effects of anthrax, which isn’t transmissible from person to person, can be greatly mitigated with prompt action.

We have also done a good deal more research on anthrax and several other potentially belligerent germs. This is both good and bad. The heightened awareness has made everybody (friend and foe alike) more aware of the biology of these micro-organisms. So while it is true that we are better prepared for a biological attack than we were in 2001, this preparation is only true at the bench level. In local communities, where the actual diseases will disseminate, we are just as vulnerable as we were before. In fact we are more vulnerable. Let me explain.

The carrier used in the 2001 anthrax attack was fairly primitive. Officials argued back and forth over just how sophisticated it was (in order to decide who could have made it). But in reality the deadly organisms were placed on to fairly simple clays. It’s no wonder that they didn’t spread very well. The clays (which contained the metal aluminum) where relatively heavy and could not be suspended in air for a very long time at all.

Another attack would never make such a mistake again. It really isn’t hard to make improvements. Many industries make products that require aerial suspension. Air fresheners, perfumes, pest control pheromones, etc. are only some examples. Companies have traditionally kept their technologies to themselves or have patented their discoveries. But eventually the art of keeping molecules (even big molecules) in the air becomes generally available. It doesn’t take a genius to look closely at a commercially available product and figure out how it works.

The other troubling fact remains that atmospheric inversions – like those experience in many places around the world – are notorious for keeping large molecules in the air for a long time. Farmers know that it is against the law to spray pesticides under these conditions because they take a very long time to land.

But we make a mistake if we assume that formulation technology is the only thing keeping our enemies from sending us a disease. The reality is that the former Soviet Union spent a great deal of money on both the production of germ agents and on their carriers. With the dissolution of the USSR, some of these agents were identified and destroyed. But, sadly, a large amount is still unaccounted for. And this is just the material that we know about.

It’s not my intention to scare anybody. But I do want to let the gravity of this situation sink in a little more than it has. At the local level (which is the level that any attack will assume) we are hardly more prepared for germ warfare than we were a decade ago.

So what, exactly should we be doing? Let me make a few suggestions that local communities might build from.

First of all, be smart about infectious disease. An attack might easily coincide with flu season, making a deadly agent more difficult to notice. If people are getting sick, stay away from public places. You should also have enough food and water to keep you and your family isolated for several days (or weeks if necessary) until the nature of the disease can be verified. Another suggestion is to have a quality dust mask in case you have to go into a public place. During the 2001 Anthrax scare, the CDC argued against using gas masks. This may or may not be good advice. I would, however, definitely get some kind of face mask or face protection (even a handkerchief would be better than nothing).

There are, of course, many other things that can (and should) be done. Stay healthy. Enjoy the sunshine (in moderation, of course – sunlight destroys germs), Avoid substances and situations that can compromise immune response. Develop the habit of regularly washing hands. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose, etc., etc.

Finally, let me also encourage public involvement. This is not my talent but there remains a real need to make more immunizations available to the public – even for organisms (like smallpox) that have presumably been eradicated. Sadly, there exist organizations and nations that still have the desire and the capability to spread these deadly germs around the world again.

There may even be a stockpile in an apartment complex on the other side of your town. I began worrying about this when I started writing this essay. I went looking in our local university library for pertinent references and was stunned to find that a very high proportion of titles relating to the biology of toxic germs were missing from the shelves (not checked out by curious citizens, mind you, but missing!).

Let’s not be blind to the reality of bioterrorism. Its potential is a very real part of our modern world. Let’s be better prepared the next time it happens.


See David Hoffman’s The Dead Hand: the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy, published by Doubleday (2009). Hoffman’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 2010. See William Johnstone’s Bioterror: Anthrax, Influenza, and the Future of Public Health Security (2008, Praeger Security International) for a detailed account of the 2001 anthrax scare and of our poor local preparation now. For a sobering look at the smallpox threat see Jonathan Tucker’s Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox. Atlantic Monthly Press (2001). David Quammen’s recent book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) is an good look at the current need for concern over emerging infectious diseases.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When A Mother Dies

An unborn child is nourished by its mother long before it sees the light of day. Through a long vital chord – an umbilicus – it receives everything that it needs to live and grow. After birth this child continues to receive nutrients from its mother as it suckles her enriched milk. Then slowly this dependency diminishes. After it is weaned, the child continues to be fed by its mother but also by other members of the family. And as the years go by, and the child becomes a teenager and then an adult, it begins to take full responsibility for its own nutritional needs.

There is, however, something else that the maternal umbilicus gives. It provides a connection between mother and child and a mutual dependency. Of course the child needs the life giving fluids that flow from its mother. But the mother also needs to provide this same nectar to its child. This is not a decision that she makes. Nature instills within her soul the impulse to nourish and care for her child. It is a vital impulse more than a rational one. A mother can no more deny her crying hungry infant than she could deny her own dietary needs. In fact her need to care for her child trumps her own needs almost entirely.

But Mothers also need to give their children an endowment of spiritual care. And this caring impulse never goes away. Even if the child grows into a disappointing adult or otherwise feels estranged from its parents, a typical mother continues to be drawn – as if by a filial tropism – to her erring offspring. A mother’s love never dies.

I was reminded of this in a very personal way a couple of months ago. I was at home on a Sunday evening two days before my mother passed away. She lived in Salt Lake City and I live in Fresno. I knew that her body was about to give out. But this did not trouble me. I knew that Mom was ready to go. In fact she wanted very much to go. And I didn’t want her to struggle any longer. In fact I was glad that her challenging mortal experience, including 50 years of lingering illness, was about to end.

I had been talking to Dad on the phone and could sense his own relief mixed with a nervous concern for the coming days. And when I hung up the phone I was at peace with the coming loss of Mom. Then I felt a pinch of pain in my left arm. It bothered me for some time. At first I thought it must be a cramp from holding the phone improperly. But the pain wouldn’t go away even after moving my arm and rubbing it tenderly. In fact the pain moved up my arm to my shoulder and partly into my left chest. Many minutes later I had to sit down as I began to feel dizzy. At about the same time my stomach began to feel queasy.

At this point I realized that I was experiencing the classic symptoms of an imminent heart attack. I couldn’t believe that this was true though. I have a healthy heart, am fairly active, and have no family history of heart disease. Surely I wasn’t about to have a heart attack.

But the symptoms were too obvious and so I had my son Michael call our local emergency response team. They arrived in short order and proceeded to undo my shirt and tape electrical connectors to my torso. Over the period of several minutes of head scratching, they determined that I was fine, after all. My heart was beating away as happy and healthy as could be. It was obviously a false alarm.

Well yes and no. Thankfully I wasn’t experiencing heart failure of the normal kind. But Kathy (my wife) was beginning to think I was experiencing the cardinal equivalent of losing my mother. She reminded me that I never respond typically to tragedy. Mentally, I work well in an emergency situation. I tend not to over-react. And if someone wants to be belligerent, I don’t get intimidated. Sometimes this gets me into trouble. Over time, however, after the dust settles, my spirit is pained. When Kathy told me that her grandmother died several months ago, I didn’t feel strongly about it at all. A few days later, however, I couldn’t keep the tears away.

Two days after Mom passed away, I became an emotional wreck. So maybe Kathy was right. Maybe my body was telling me something that I wouldn’t register emotionally until later – telling me that the life-line to my mother was ripping apart.

My adult relationship with Mom was simple. Her memory was not good and so we only talked about immediate things. She never wanted to reminisce about the time we used to spend in the garden, about the books that she sometimes read to me when she wasn’t too sick, or about the conversations we occasionally had about life, family and faith. We didn’t talk about these things because she didn’t remember them. She just wanted me to know that she loved me.

And I have always understood her love. It came to me continuously, unspoken and unsolicited through that invisible umbilicus that ever remains between a mother and her child while we live. And then it was gone. That divine maternal need to love and care for her dear ones – that need that so often gets abused and taken for granted by ungrateful children – was no longer there.

The more I think of this experience, the more remarkable it seems to me. Why did I feel the symptoms of heart failure? We connect our deepest feelings with the organ that pumps blood. I’m not sure that anybody has ever been able to explain why this is so. But what sort of spiritual link ties our physical heart with the people we love? I have no idea, but I can tell you that it’s real.

And now, several weeks since Mom’s passing, I find myself wishing that I were a child again. Maybe it was her faith in me that kept me pushing forward all these years, striving for success, believing that I was destined for something important. I don’t know. All I really want to do is sit by her side and have her read me a story once again.