Organophosphates: A Clearly Present Danger

Approximately four months prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a devastating fire broke out in an agricultural storage warehouse in a rural agrarian community in the Southwestern United States. In fighting the fire, which eventually consumed the facility, many thousands of gallons of water were used by volunteer fire departments in their efforts to bring the fire under control, prevent its spread, and ultimately put it out. Stored within the facility were many commercial-grade agriculturally used and regulated pesticides, including nearly 150 gallons of particularly toxic organophosphate- (OP) and pyrethroid-based chemicals.

The chemicals became entrained in the firewater runoff. In spite of properly executed response and mitigation strategies to prevent water runoff from the site, there was an unseen opportunity for some of the thousands of gallons of water with entrained pesticides to find their way into a nearby river. The results were slow to be detected – but when they were, the effect was both noteworthy and alarming. Reports of affected fish and wildlife began to filter into the fire site a couple of days after the event As the river water, mixed with the site effluent, moved further downstream, the impact upon river fish and other species continued.

The initial result of the alarm immediately triggered was that first responders from the company performing the cleanup quickly called for a consultation with subject-matter and other experts from the product manufacturers, the county emergency-management director, the county judge, the county sheriff, and various state stakeholders. Lengthy conversations with numerous subject-matter, and with the product experts provided by the manufacturers, revealed two important facts for immediate consideration: (1) The significance of the chemicals entering the river system should not be underestimated, because the water column could act as a magnifier and could increase lethality by as much as tenfold; and (2) the water itself could lengthen the half-life of the chemicals entrained.

The Proper Protocols for a Worst-Case Scenario 

Conservatively assuming a worst-case scenario, local officials and the quickly assembled consultants agreed on the issuance of a river warning advisory – closing the river until further notice – to all fishermen, swimmers, water craft, livestock operations, water intake systems, and anyone other than those with official business. Television and radio stations, and both local and regional print publications, were notified and monitored closely to enhance efforts to put the message into the public domain and keep it there. In addition, sheriff’s deputies circulated throughout the community, especially in the areas closest to the river, to ensure timely dissemination of the advisory. With a major holiday weekend approaching half measures were obviously not worth the effort.

Fortunately, state agency personnel, private-sector first responders, and firefighters knew the toxic chemical potential with which they were dealing, because EPA- and state-mandated documents listing the chemicals stored in the destroyed portion of the facility had been made available to them at the initiation of the response operations. Special care was taken to ensure that proper personal protective equipment (PPE) had been issued, and was being worn, and that all decontamination protocols were followed. The combination of shared communications and coordination, along with the establishment of a common operational picture within a Unified Command Structure, facilitated the fast and flexible response needed to deal with what had become a dynamic and frequently changing situation.

The “Southwestern” incident has since been cited as an excellent working example of how an accidental and unintended release of pesticides with considerable toxicity should be – and in this case was – handled, with emergency-response strategies and assets focused primarily on human health and safety, but with environmental protection and post-incident cleanup operations a very close second. Such would likely also be the case today if a similar event were to occur almost anywhere in the United States – but with a major new factor added to the planning and response strategies needed.

In fact, the consideration of such an event occurring today, in an intentional terroristic scenario designed to create a situation with simultaneous crises – involving but not limited to numerous fatalities, acute/chronic illness, fear, paranoia, chaos, disruption, and economic dislocation – is one of numerous new responsibilities assigned to post-9/11 emergency managers. The terrorist attacks of 2001 have also greatly increased the general public’s awareness of the nation’s vulnerabilities to such asymmetric attacks. Many previously tried and true policies have had to be reexamined in order to reduce the threat of such future attacks; there also have been some helpful increases in public-health funding and greater attention paid to the monitoring and oversight of chemical/biological (C/B) agents.

Disney World, Aum Shinrikyo, and a Timely CRS Report 

One of the most important questions that had to be dealt with after the 9/11 attacks was just how vulnerable the United States was, and is, to assault by C/B agents. That question was particularly troublesome in the immediate aftermath of the September 2001 attacks because of the subsequently exposed plot by U.S.-based terror cells to explore, and appropriate for use, so-called “crop duster” aircraft. The terrorist plan, apparently, was to use agricultural chemicals in an asymmetrical-attack on a concentrated population of the country (in a theme park or at a sporting event, for example).

Even before 9/11, though, agricultural chemicals had been used in some of the most damaging terrorist attacks around the world. Although fertilizers were particularly noteworthy in their use, (resulting in a recommendation by the U.S. Coast Guard-sponsored Chemical Transportation Advisory Committee for inclusion on the list of “Certain Dangerous Cargoes”), pesticides had also been used, although on a more limited basis. There also is evidence of pesticide use in attacks in the Middle East (Israel/Palestine); the use of pesticides was apparently part of the plan carried out by the conspirators in the first World Trade Center bombing attack (in 1993); and the OP-generated chemical agent Sarin was used by the Aum Shinrikyo Japanese terrorist organization in its attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

These attacks have given the general public, agricultural producers, and government authorities a new point of view. There has been a galvanizing realization that, in the wrong hands, agricultural chemicals – specifically including fertilizers and pesticides – could be used to do great damage. However, there may still be a gap in the analysis of how these chemicals, including OP pesticides, could be used as weapons.

Some analysis was provided in a May 2004 CRS (Congressional Research Service) report to Congress in which Dana Shea and Frank Gottron stated that, “The identification of Chemical/Biological (C/B) weaponry into the catch-all category of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD) has led to consideration of C/B use primarily on a mass-casualty scale. This treatment may misstate the potential civilian vulnerability to a small-scale [emphasis added] terrorist C/B attack. Treatment of terrorist attacks on a mass-casualty scale has produced many worst-case scenarios, but … [there have been] few assessments of the wide spectrum of potential C/B agents.”

In addition, according to the same CRS report – echoing a major point from the Gilmore Commission report – “preparation against a large-scale chemical or biological attack would not necessarily simultaneously protect against the smaller-scale attacks. This analysis suggests that agents that are effective for small-scale attacks are not necessarily the agents of choice for massive-scale attacks.” (The Gilmore Commission was headed by, and named for, former Virginia Governor James Gilmore, who had been appointed by then-President Bill Clinton to chair the Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction.)

Supporting the CRS report, a later Department of Defense-sponsored Assessment of the Impact of Chemical and Biological Weapons on Joint Operations in 2010 stated, for that “The focus of chemical and biological defense has been, and continues to be, largely on massive battlefield use of chemical and biological weapons. Our military judgment is that this is no longer the most likely threat. … While U.S. forces must still be prepared to fight on a CB battlefield, they must also be able to counter, and cope with, limited, localized CB attacks – including attacks by asymmetrical means – on key units, facilities, and equipment at both U.S. and foreign sites.”

Pre-WWII Discoveries; Post-Cold War Horrors

A cursory examination of organophosphate development and chemical behavior may yield some understanding of the concerns now held by homeland-security, law-enforcement, firefighters, and medical-response personnel – and by the public at large – about the potentially intentional use of OPs as terrorist weapons.

Basically, organophosphates are nerve poisons that target and kill insects by disrupting their brains and nervous systems, after which the OPs are broken down relatively quickly in the environment. OPs inhibit cholinesterase, a key enzyme in the nervous system, from working, and thus are generally among the most acutely toxic pesticides to vertebrates (including man). Poisoning from OPs can occur through inhalation, absorption, and/or ingestion.

Organophosphates, which are derived from phosphoric acid, were developed in Germany in World War II as a by-product of nerve-gas development. The effects – a choking sensation and dimming of vision after exposure – of organophosphates on the human nervous system were first described in 1932 by German chemist Willy Lange and his graduate student Gerde von Krueger. Later in the 1930s, another German chemist, Gerhard Schrader, was inspired by the Lange/von Krueger discoveries to experiment, at his company IG Farben, with OP compounds as insecticides.

The Nazi government put Schrader in charge of developing organophosphate-derived nerve gases when their potential use as CW (chemical warfare) agents became apparent. Schrader’s laboratory discovered, among other things, the so-called “G series” of weapons, which include Sarin, Tabun, and Soman. Although those compounds were not used in World War II, the Nazis had produced large quantities of each. After World War II, American companies gained access to the information from Schrader’s laboratory, and began synthesizing organophosphate pesticides in large quantities. Parathion, among the first marketed, was quickly followed by malathion and azinphosmethyl.

Today, the public-health and environmental concerns related to OPs are both well known and well documented. Organophosphate use, even as a localized or limited-scale weapon, is a profound and gripping consideration for which emergency-management and emergency-response personnel, including those in small and rural communities, must plan and prepare.

John Temperilli

John Temperilli is Disaster Response Program Manager for James Lee Witt Associates, a part of GlobalOptions Group, an internationally known crisis-management and emergency-preparedness consulting firm. His principal duties at JLWA are to develop "the response side" of the company's disaster-planning and response operations. He also is charged with the development of JLWA logistics and resources, as well as EOC surge support. A graduate of Texas A&M University (B.A. and M.P.A. degrees), he is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard's Federal Advisory Committee -- also known as CTAC (Chemical Transportation Advisory Committee) -- and has more than 30 years' experience in dealing with hazmat and related incidents throughout the United States and overseas.



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