Hi-tech test could help police track down terrorists who use nerve gas

Scientists are developing ‘first-of-its-kind technology’ that could help police trace the residues from terrorist attacks involving nerve gas and other chemical agents back to the companies or other sources where the perpetrators obtained ingredients for the agent.

Mar 1, 2012
By Paul Jacques
Helen McEntee. Picture: PA Media

Scientists are developing ‘first-of-its-kind technology’ that could help police trace the residues from terrorist attacks involving nerve gas and other chemical agents back to the companies or other sources where the perpetrators obtained ingredients for the agent.

Carlos Fraga at the American Chemical Society (ACS) explained that nerve agents, like sarin (also called GB), are some of the most toxic and fast-acting chemical warfare agents in existence. As seen in the 1994 and 1995 GB attacks in Japan, symptoms – such as a runny nose and a tightness in the chest – can appear within seconds, followed by nausea and difficulty breathing.

Although traces of the agent remain after such attacks, there has been no practical way of tracing the agent back to its source ingredients.

A report on the new technique, which could eventually help track down perpetrators of chemical attacks, appears in ACS’ journal Analytical Chemistry.

The method, called ‘impurity profiling’, identifies impurities in a GB sample at a crime scene and matches them like a fingerprint to the impurities in the source chemicals, pinpointing the likely source.

Mr Fraga’s team found that up to 88 per cent of the impurities in source chemicals used to make GB can wind up in the finished product and these impurities are unique, like a fingerprint.

Using standard laboratory instruments, they have already performed impurity profiling and correctly identified the starting materials used for two different batches of GB.

•Officers facing protestors at the NATO and G-8 Summits in Chicago this May will be equipped with face shields that fit comfortably over their gas masks and seal tightly to keep out liquids. The city has awarded a $193,461 emergency contract to Colorado-based Super Seer Corp for more than 3,000 of the new face shields to be used by Chicago police officers on the front line at the summits. This is the first purchase made under sweeping powers granted to Mayor Rahm Emanuel to acquire new equipment for use by officers during the summits, without obtaining City Council approval or using competitive bidding. The authorisation applies only to equipment that cannot be bought under already existing contracts.

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