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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Keeping Safe

Not all terrorist threats should be viewed as equal

By David Abel, Globe Staff, 11/4/2001


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How the body fights back
Are there other threats?
Not all terror threats equal

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No matter how irrational it may seem, there's a certain logic to terrorism: maximizing destruction, provoking panic, and killing as many people as possible.

Using that logic, certain targets are of more concern than others.

Water. One thing we shouldn't worry much about, terrorism specialists say, is our water supply.

Hundreds of billions of gallons flow through more than 168,000 drinking-water systems around the country, all of which treat water for germs.

''Contrary to what many people fear, poisoning a water supply is an extremely difficult undertaking,'' Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said last month. ''Given the volume of most water supplies, it would take an enormous amount of chemicals. You'd have to take a tanker-load of chemicals to a reservoir. And we've tightened security to prevent that.''

Since Sept. 11, as at most major utilities, security has been beefed up at the nation's reservoirs and treatment plants. Congress has appropriated money to protect the water system from terrorism. And officials in many states have stepped up testing for foreign agents in reservoirs.

The nation's water supply has another built-in protection: Few reservoirs and systems are linked. An attack on one wouldn't pose a problem for others.

A more likely terrorist attack on the water supply, specialists say, would be an attempt to blow up a pumping station, divert sewage pipes into a reservoir, or rupture a chlorine storage tank that could release poison and kill people living nearby. But, again, heightened security after Sept. 11 should make that difficult to pull off.

Air. A sophisticated terrorist could use a specially-fitted crop-duster or another airborne means of disseminating deadly germs overhead, but specialists say it is unlikely terrorists could spread a bioweapon like anthrax through a building's ventilation system.

''For years people have said that using a ventilation system would be a marvelous way of killing people,'' said Milton Leitenberg, a senior fellow at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies who has studied bioweapons for decades. ''But most modern buildings have filters that would take out the organisms in a single pass. The threat is much less than people would believe.''

Even if the finely ground anthrax spores sent in a letter to Senator Tom Daschle's office were released in the Hart Senate Office Building's ventilation system, specialists say it's highly unlikely the spores would have spread to the rest of the building.

Nor is the contaminated air released from a building's exhaust pipes likely to pose much danger. The concentration of the spores would be too low.

Food. Poisoning the food supply would be possible, but difficult. In 1984, in an effort to manipulate the results of a local election, a cult group poured bacteria on salad bars in Oregon. Although no one died, some 750 people became sick from salmonella.

The more realistic threat to the food supply is economic, specialists say.

A terrorist who slipped a strain of mad cow or foot-and-mouth disease into the nation's agricultural system, or who used a pest to destroy the nation's crops, could cripple the farm economy and cost the country billions of dollars.

''We are vulnerable, and we are unfortunately living in a world where we didn't consider terrorism to be a significant threat,'' said Neil Harl, a professor of agriculture and economics at Iowa State University. ''The biggest single threat without a doubt is foot-and-mouth disease, but terrorists can do a lot of mischief in all the areas of food production, processing, and distribution. We have to start being more vigilant.''

Other threats. Bioweapons may feel like the immediate threat; unfortunately, there are other doomsday weapons, primarily poison gas and nuclear bombs.

Chemical weapons are unlikely to cause as much widespread death and illness as bioweapons. But they can be obtained from commercial sources. And if disseminated in the right way, with a large enough amount, the results can be devastating. Still, experts say it is not easy to obtain large quantities of poisonous chemicals and that they are unreliable weapons.

Nuclear terrorism would be the most destructive, but it is also the least likely. Making a nuclear bomb requires an immense money, resources, and expertise. Without help from a state, nuclear terrorism is highly unlikely.

It's conceivable, however, that a weapon could be stolen from a country such as Pakistan or a crude weapon could be devised with the help of an unemployed scientist from the former Soviet Union. There is also the prospect that a determined terrorist could attempt to detonate a store of radioactive material.

This story ran on page 15 of the Boston Sunday Globe's Common-sense Guide to Keeping Safe on 11/4/2001.
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