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Faculty experts offer insights on danger
of biological warfare in Middle East
February 9, 1998

With tension between the United States and Iraq rapidly increasing, the prospects of renewed armed conflict between the two nations may be reaching a point of no return. But this time, along with discussing the logistics of an air war and a ground war, the media has been brandishing a much more chilling term: biological war.

The motives and implications for this new, terrifying twist are varied, but the reasons are actually quite simple.

"Creating something like anthrax spores is not rocket science," says Steven Geary, a professor of microbiology in the department of pathobiology. "It's a process that someone with a B.A. degree in microbiology can do pretty easily. And it can be done relatively cheaply, too."

Anthrax is just one of the diseases that Saddam Hussein has a history of producing. He reportedly used it on the Kurdish people in the late 1980s. And he had taken steps toward using it again. According to the United Nations, after the Gulf War in 1991, American troops discovered 8,500 liters of anthrax in Iraq: 6,500 liters had already been loaded into warheads. Troops also found 2,000 liters of aflatoxin and 19,000 liters of botulinum toxin. Large percentages of these had also been prepared for disbursement through missiles or gun shells.

But although the diseases have been reported by name in the press, not much has been said about what their effect might be. It's as if just the names are enough to spread terror. Is that posture warranted.

"Well, yes and no," says Geary. "Certainly, you don't want to contract any of these diseases. On the other hand, inoculations exist, and post-exposure treatment can be provided if exposure is caught early enough."

Over the years, Geary's work as a microbiologist has given him a degree of familiarity with anthrax and botulinum. These are, after all, bacteriological diseases that affect animals and humans. Both diseases are generally spread and acquired while in a dormant spore form. If the spores are ingested or inhaled in sufficient volume, they will cause the disease.

"Anthrax spores are particularly resistant to environmental stresses," Geary says. "They can withstand heat up to 140 degrees for several hours, direct sunlight, and many disinfectants. And if they get into the soil, they can stay there and remain viable for years."

Once the disease becomes active it takes root in the bloodstream and begins what Geary calls bacteriological overgrowth. "It is sensitive in the early stages to antibiotics, even penicillin, but once it really takes hold, it becomes more difficult to treat."

Botulinum, another bacterial toxin, is much more deadly. For one strain, the LD50 (lethal dose that will kill 50 percent of those exposed) is .0001 milligram perkilogram of body weight.

"Aflatoxin can cause cancer as well," says Lawrence Silbart, an associate professor of animal science and assistant director of the Center for Environmental Health, who is familiar with the disease. "That is, exposure can cause an increased probability of contracting cancer several years down the road."

Many in the media are suggesting, however, that inhaling high doses of the toxin can cause a more rapid form of cancer that kills in days or weeks.

"Theoretically, that's possible," Silbart says, "but that assertion sounds much more like conjecture than fact."

But questions persist, the foremost being how can we protect our troops.

"There are vaccines for these diseases," says Geary. "So troops who have been inoculated won't be as affected by these weapons, unless of course they receive exposure to an extreme amount of these toxins. This can overwhelm the immune system."

The sad part, he adds, is that "civilian populations who are unprepared will be the real casualties, if they are in fact targeted."

Geary adds that wherever these spores are dispersed, they will make the landscape unlivable for years.

"The disease will be in the ground and the ground water," he says. "Livestock grazed in those areas will be tainted. People will be exposed, too. You'd have to be inoculated regularly against the diseases just to live in such a place."

David Pesci