Thursday, January 01, 2009

PBS "Avoiding Armageddon" examines chemical and biological WMD's

The first DVD in the PBS Frontline Series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice” is “Silent Killers, Poisons and Plagues”. The documentary (90 minutes) traces the evolution of chemical and biological weapons. The film places more emphasis on their history than on detailed speculations of how they could be used now.

The first example of biological welfare may have occurred in colonial America, when the British used smallpox-contaminated garments against the native populations in the French and Indian Wars.

Chemical warfare developed rapidly during World War I, when the Germans developed chlorine gas, which could effective poke holes in infantry lines. Chlorine would cause suffocation, and then the Germans added mustard gas, which would cause severe skin burns and peeling. Soldiers could improvise gas masks with urine-soaked clothes, but effective protective masks were developed. Army Basic Training later would include use of the protective mask, and sometimes trainees were exposed to chlorine (I was exposed only to tear gas in 1968).

Japan actually used biological warfare against China in 1939 with plague-infested fleas. That’s the most recent use of biological warfare in modern times. The Japanese also infected individual Chinese and performed vivisection, as did Nazi Germany in the concentration camps.

President Nixon helped advocated a Biological Weapons Treaty in 1972, which was supposed to stop stockpiling. Nevertheless, both the United States and the Soviet Union carried on clandestine experiments in chemical and biological warfare, and the former Soviet Union has many stockpiles related to a number of deadly agents. In 1971, there was a miniature epidemic of smallpox near the Aral Sea when Soviet experiments went wrong.

The first act of biological terror in the United States may have occurred in 1984 when restaurants in The Dalles, Oregon had salads contaminated with salmonella by the Rajneeshee Attack, in a bizarre attempt to keep voters home from an election and gain political control of an area. The documentary at one point refers to the agent as a “virus” but it was actually a bacterium.

The worst chemical attack in modern times occurred in Japan in 1995 on the Tokyo subway when the Aum Shinrikyo attacked it with sarin gas. The group’s founder, Shoko Asahara,, was a psychopath who wanted to rule Japan and wanted the power to push a button.

The film covers the anthrax attack that followed 9/11 in the fall of 2001, through the United States Postal Service. But the documentary was made before the supposed resolution of the case by the FBI in 2008, as caused by a Fort Detrick scientist.

The film discusses the grim possibility of reintroduction of smallpox, and only briefly refers to the fact that we have stopped vaccinations. It proposes a concept called “ring immunization,” starting with health care workers.

The documentary also mentions the idea of a “stealth agent” which infects people silently and does not cause symptoms while the infection is spread person to person. HIV behaved this way, but was transmitted only by direct blood contact, not casual contact.

The film is followed by a panel discussion and interviews lead by Frank Sesno, and includes David Franz and Joe Wackerle, who said that bioterror could be the gravest threat of all, even become civilization-threatening.

Remember, on December 1 2008, the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism said that there was a greater than 50/50 chance of a WMD terror attack on a western city by 2013, and the most likely WMD would be biological (rather than nuclear).

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