By Nils Dahl
Date: October 14, 2001
There are three basic categories of disease-causing organisms in the world:
Anthrax is a single cell bacterium, more or less rod shaped, that invades moist, nutrient-laden tissue in warm-blooded animals. The organism has a dormant spore stage that persists in soil for many years. When dormant spores are introduced into warm, moist, nutrient-laden tissues of certain living creatures, the dormant pathogen becomes active again and proceeds to multiply. This occurs quite often as grazing herbivores stir up soil with their feet. The spore-laden soil gets inhaled through the nose.
Anthrax produces a very nasty protein that acts on the cells of its host. This protein is currently named "lethal factor". Chemically, it is a protease - an enzyme that causes proteins to break into smaller pieces. This "lethal factor" travels through the circulatory system, producing massive damage to essential organs. The results are often fatal.
Anthrax is common in the soil in many countries. Cattle and sheep are vaccinated routinely in many developed nations to prevent massive infection of herds. In third world countries, such precautions are rare or impossible. The vaccine for cattle and sheep is NOT suitable for use on humans.
Anthrax must enter the human body to produce an infection. The spores must land in moist, warm, nutrient-laden tissues to be able to reactivate and multiply rapidly.
The most common infections are in people who handle wool and animal hides. Spores of anthrax do get trapped in such materials. The handler may have cuts or abrasions where spores can enter and begin multiplying. Skin infections seem to be rarely fatal and are easily treated by a period of antibiotic doses.
Anthrax living inside raw meat from infected animals can, if inadequately cooked, lead to anthrax infections of the digestive tract. This manifestation occurs in third world countries but is unknown in developed nations - thanks to regular vaccination programs of meat animals for many diseases.
The third method of infection is via spores entering the nose or mouth -- breathed into the respiratory system. If the spores settle inside the nose where local infections are possible. Risk of death is minimal with antibiotic treatment.
Unfortunately, there has been an effort to develop anthrax as a biological agent in the past. This "agent" form of the spore stage of anthrax is engineered to pass into the lungs in quantities sufficient to cause catastrophic infections that overwhelm the body's immune system. Since the disease has a very long, stable "shelf life", it seems to have appealed as a method of killing lots of people.
I personally dislike even the idea of a non-selective lethal weapon of any kind, but that's just me.
When used as an airborne dust, the anthrax spores must be of a specific range of sizes to end up in the lungs, where they find ideal conditions for germination and multiplication. If the spore particles are too small, they tend to drift on winds, ending up too few per volume of air to trigger an infection that overwhelms the body's immune system. If the particles are too large, they settle to the ground.
While it definitely is possible to dump some anthrax spore material into an envelope and mail it to someone with lethal results, such tactics are unlikely to produce fatal infections. The recipient of the letter must open it while it is close to the mouth and nose AND be breathing in at the same time as the dust sprays out.
One Internet report on the sad death of the tabloid employee in Florida mentions that this man was very near-sighted and had opened the infected letter close to his face in order to read it, likely causing a cloud of dust to fill the still air around his face. He breathed in enough spores to cause a very rapid and lethal infection.
So even the most malevolent sociopaths, should they get access to anthrax spore material, are not going to enjoy any measure of success with letter mailing.
But where is this nasty stuff coming from? I can only speculate. There have been anthrax spore making efforts in military bio-warfare facilities in countries that experienced sudden changes in government. It is possible that an efficient world-wide terror organization could have obtained small quantities of anthrax from those bio-warfare facilities and stored it for use later.
Although many universities in the USA routinely do research on anthrax to develop vaccines and develop an understanding of the organism, this does NOT mean that there is manufacturing of large stocks of the spore form everywhere. Such things are only done (we hope) in specific controlled bio-warfare facilities - or not at all. This is not something that terrorists could ever do in their basements.
Delivery of spore powder by letter is easy to deal with. First, put on long rubber gloves before you handle any envelopes. Just dump a suspect letter into water. It will help to add a wetting agent - one or two small drops of dish detergent. This is going to spoil the paper envelope and its useful contents but it also will cause any powder inside to turn into a lump that cannot spread in the air - thus eliminating any possible infection of the lungs or respiratory tract.
If you are really worried, add a dash of chlorine laundry bleach (generic or name brand). This is going to kill almost all infectious organisms, including anthrax spores that become active. How much? Maybe 1/4 cup of bleach per gallon of water (mixed in, please).
Other methods could work with 100% reliability but are going to be too cumbersome to use. Oh, please don't stick your hands into bleach solution unless you are wearing rubber gloves. Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite in water solution) tends to irritate or kill skin cells too.
One very simple protective measure would be to use nose filters that would catch and hold dust particles - and breathe in only through the nose. These could be as simple as fiber nose inserts containing sticky binding agents. If this looks funny, so what?
Desktop HEPA air filtering units can be placed in ways that draw clouds of dust away from people. Some such filtering units should be capable of reducing spore levels to "tolerable" concentrations.
Anthrax is just one of many organisms that survive in spore form in soil. One other common spore form disease is tetanus (lockjaw) - endemic everywhere but seldom contracted. Once again, the organism must be injected into the body - and usually is via a puncture wound by a nail or other sharp point that is coated with spore-containing soil.
Hoof-and-mouth disease also spreads by airborne infections - some strains being able to survive and infect over considerable distances.
Causing mass deaths with anthrax just isn't possible unless a very sophisticated attack is executed. In the USA, people routinely live, travel, and work "inside" buildings and vehicles, making an airborne attack almost useless. Large outdoor gatherings that could be attacked by low flying crop duster places are possible - thus the government concern with that type of aircraft and the policy of banning flights over sports stadiums. We are far more isolated from outdoor gatherings than are most societies.
Frankly, it does not surprise me to see a highly localized attack by mail. The target was a publishing firm that has nationwide circulation of its newspapers. Though there has been recent panic, those papers are actually printed regionally by contract firms and so pose absolutely NO danger of carrying infectious disease spores. This is also true for most magazines sold nationally. Your favorite supermarket and news stand magazines are printed within a hundred miles of the area of sale in order to limit transportation costs and to permit simultaneous delivery to all retail sales locations.
The Florida newspaper headquarters generates the final format as a data file and then transmits it via satellite to the actual "printing" locations. Just FYI, the typical form is a Pagemaker file that can be fed into a commercial system that directly generates offset press printing plates (Mergenthaler and other firms make these systems).
It is obvious that the intent is, once again, to carry out just one attack that costs almost nothing yet garners international attention and causes widespread panic. This is how terrorists work. They are incredibly small organizations that have neither the resources nor the staff to launch any kind of widespread damage - particularly when there is a policy of extreme watchfulness in place.
Sad to say, the current policy of secrecy is halting efforts to educate the public to the realities of biological warfare and to the vanishingly small probability of danger to most people. The high probability targets are going to be news media firms or specific major name employees of news media firms - just to trigger international reporting of the incidents (and subsequent panic by uninformed members of the public).
Frankly, there just is NO chance that terrorists or demented criminals could carry out anthrax attacks on any significant number of people by mailing envelopes of spore powder. This disease is far too ineffective to do meaningful damage when used in this way.
It is easy to take effective precautions against inhalation of spores dumped into envelopes. Preparing such envelopes is a very high risk activity that takes a great deal of time. The actual effectiveness of such an attack is rarely worth the effort.
Water-borne biological attacks are impossible for me to imagine in the USA. Most local water supplies pass through filtering plants that add sanitizing agents to reduce or eliminate the levels of disease-causing organisms in the water.
These terrorists are putting on a show that gets international attention - likely hoping to reinforce their image locally by demonstrating a few acts of terror in what is perceived to be the world's leading country - the USA. This will intimidate the leaders and the public in the third world countries where these terrorists live, plan, and train recruits - helping to ensure the perpetuation of safe havens in countries that simply cannot provide effective protection of their own leaders.
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