Risk and reality: a tale of three bombs, two of them real

What do dirty bombs have to do with health care? The same thing that links massive aerial bombing during wartime with modern building construction. The same thing that links chemical weapons attacks with clean drinkable water.

Let me give a couple examples to illustrate what I mean.

Example 1. Two blocks from my office they’re excavating a new office complex. Excavation is being performed by controlled explosion—i.e., by chemical processes very similar to those the British Royal Air Force used to destroy the German city of Dresden in the Second World War. Every hour or so my whole building shakes. I’m not all that worried though; this is a common way to dig out a foundation in bedrock. Of course, the Dresden bombing and the excavation down the street differ hugely—in scale, implementation, and intent. The RAF set out to destroy Dresden, and used hundreds of airplanes loaded with thousands of tons of chemical explosive to fulfill that intent. The excavators down the street use kilograms of chemical explosive at a time, in precise, controlled blasts, and just want to dig out a foundation for a new building.

Example 2. Two or three times a day I go down the hall and re-hydrate using the water fountain, which is fed by the city water supply. Municipal water is treated with a chemical weapon of mass destruction called chlorine, which if I drank in its pure form would kill me. All students of Canadian history know about how deadly chlorine gas can be. On April 22 1915, Canadian soldiers, holding the Ypres line with British and French allies, were the victims of the first large-scale chemical weapon attack in military history.

My point: in spite of the well-documented horrors of Ypres and Dresden, we modern humans live quite comfortably with chemicals and chemical processes that in different hands and with different intent and implementation could produce similarly horrific results.

Recently, in the post-9/11 panic, there was a campaign in the U.S. to phase out all uses of cesium chloride (CsCl) that contains the radioactive cesium-137 isotope. This substance is used as a gamma ray source to sterilize blood prior to transfusion. The rationale for the proposed phaseout was fear of the so-called dirty bomb.

The dirty bomb sounds scary, but when you think about it it is probably one of the most cockamamie ideas ever trotted out. According to one typical description, dirty bombs are

… designed to spread radioactive contamination, causing panic and disruption over a wide area. The number and diversity of radioactive sources pose a serious security challenge, and the United States has yet to take all the necessary steps to strengthen controls to match the heightened terrorist threat.

This sounds like dirty bombs are a fact of life. They’re not a fact of life. They are hypothetical, i.e., make believe. Don’t be fooled by the phrase in the above quote, “designed to spread radioactive contamination.” That makes it sound like dirty bombs are things that are manufactured every day, like RAM memory modules—things you can buy anywhere, which are built by guys in factories somewhere, who show up for work at seven and punch out at three-thirty. They are not.

In fact, no dirty bomb has ever been used by a terrorist, let alone built. (Saddam Hussein tried one against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, but found it not to his liking as it was too difficult to assemble and produced too few casualties.) It is an imaginary invention, a product of minds fueled by too much caffeine and free time (possibly spent watching James Bond and Austin Powers movies), and afflicted by “critical threat discernment deficit,” or CTDD—inability, or unwillingness, to tell true threats from comic-book threats.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the Cs-137 phaseout campaign quietly fizzled, but not before (1) hundreds of self-styled “security experts” made bundles of money dreaming up all sorts of inane dirty bomb attack scenarios and peddling them to media vehicles desperate to drive up ratings, and (2) security agencies wasted tens of thousands of man-hours, and who knows how many salary dollars, developing organizational procedures to deal with dirty bombs.

I hope, for the sake of the health and well-being of infants and immuno-deficient patients who need a blood transfusion, that decision-makers and holders of the purse stings stop taking dirty bombs seriously. If you don’t give blood a strong dose of gamma radiation immediately before transfusion in an infant or an immuno-deficient patient, there is a chance the recipient will catch a transfusion-associated disease that is fatal in nine out of ten cases.

It is interesting that there was no post-9/11 campaign to phase out chlorine, which as I mentioned above is a bona fide weapon of mass destruction. Unlike Cs-137, chlorine is ubiquitous, cheap, easy to obtain, and easy to use for malevolent purposes.

As I mentioned back in the early hysteria over Fukushima, which has yet to produce its first casualty, we do risk wrong in our society.

How can we make Cs-137 as widely accepted as chlorine? After all, like chlorine and every other useful chemical that doubles as a hazardous substance, Cs-137 is hugely beneficial when it’s used right.

5 comments for “Risk and reality: a tale of three bombs, two of them real

  1. February 29, 2012 at 20:15

    > by chemical processes very similar to those the British Royal Air Force used to destroy the German city of Dresden

    They burned Dresden down, not blew it up.

    • Steve Aplin
      February 29, 2012 at 20:41

      Sure, but the chemical process of rapid oxidation was central to both applications. That’s why I said “similar” not “identical.”

  2. Bruce
    March 9, 2012 at 10:18

    Reportedly, Saddam Hussein had built and tested “dirty bombs” in the late 80’s to keep the numerically superior Iranians at bay. The effort was abandoned when tests showed the bombs wouldn’t kill that many or fast enough. Thereafter, he concentrated on more effective chemical weapons.

    I found a good debunking of the “dirty bomb” scare by physicist Richard Muller here:
    http://muller.lbl.gov/TRessays/29-Dirty_Bombs.htm

    • Steve Aplin
      March 9, 2012 at 11:47

      Bruce, thanks — I hadn’t heard about Saddam’s dirty bomb. Notice in the link above (in the “typical description” of a dirty bomb) that the authors can point only to the scavenged Cs-137 irradiator in Brazil as an “example” of a dirty bomb. That’s not an example of a dirty bomb, it’s an example of lax disposal.

      I don’t know how many poor Brazilian kids have scavenged discarded flammable material out of a landfill then accidentally burned themselves with it. We rarely hear about that, but I bet it happens. But I wouldn’t use that as an example of why we should fear Molotov cocktails. Instead I’d use the example of how you can drive over to any gas station in any city in the world and, for $1.20 a litre, buy the essential ingredient for a Molotov Cocktail any day of the week and twice on Sunday — with no one taking down your name or taking any note of the purchase beyond the sales receipt.

      • March 9, 2012 at 20:30

        Molotov cocktails would be like “dirty bombs” if the gasoline had to be on fire from the moment it came out of the pump, diminishingly so throughout the time the attacker was getting it to the target, and then still less so once he threw it.

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