UNITED NATIONS - UN weapons inspectors discovered a potentially hazardous chemical warfare agent that was taken from an Iraqi chemical weapons facility 11 years ago and mistakenly stored in their offices in the heart of midtown Manhattan all that time, officials said yesterday.
The material, identified in inventory files as phosgene - a chemical substance used in World War I weapons - was discovered Aug. 24. It hadn't been identified until Wednesday because it was marked simply with an inventory number and officials had to check the many records in their vast archives, said Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for the UN inspection agency.
The material has been in the offices of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC, apparently since 1996, when it was inadvertently shipped to UN administrative offices, instead of a chemical laboratory, police said.
A team of hazardous materials specialists from the FBI and the New York City police went to the office on Manhattan's east side, about a block north of UN headquarters, yesterday with two steel containers to remove the material and take it to a military facility outside New York for disposal, officials said.
While the disposal team was in UNMOVIC's sixth-floor office, its small staff was evacuated along with other tenants from that floor, Buchanan said.
When the material was discovered in a shipping container last week, Buchanan said, UN specialists followed their established procedure in dealing with unknown substances - putting it in double zipper-lock plastic bags and securing it in a safe in a room that is double-locked.
Marie Okabe, UN deputy spokeswoman, said that there was no danger to the public and that staff continued to work in UNMOVIC offices. The United Nations called in US authorities to remove the material, she said.
Tests conducted by UN personnel found no toxic vapors in the area where the material had been stored, police said.
Tony Snow, White House spokesman, said the chemical agents should have been transported to an appropriately equipped lab for analysis.
"I'm sure that there are going to be a lot of red-faced people over at the UN trying to figure out how they got there," Snow said.
Okabe said the chemical state of the phosgene was unknown but "could be potentially hazardous."
Buchanan said the phosgene was in liquid form, suspended in oil, in a soda-can-size container that was sealed in a plastic bag.
Records indicated that the material was from a 1996 excavation of the bombed-out research and development building at Iraq's main chemical weapons facility at Muthana, near Samarra. The facility was extensively bombed during the 1991 Gulf War, Buchanan said.
UNMOVIC has 1,400 linear feet of paper files, and it took until Wednesday to find the inventory matching the number on the package of phosgene, authorities said.
Also found at the UNMOVIC office was a sealed package containing tiny samples of chemical agents in sealed glass tubes that calibrate analytical equipment inspectors use to identify chemical agents, Buchanan said. Each of these reference standards contained less than a gram of chemical material, he added.
Okabe said the United Nations has launched an investigation to determine how and why the material was in UNMOVIC files. The Security Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were informed, Okabe added.
The State Department said it had learned of the discovery late Wednesday and immediately contacted the FBI to deal with the disposal.
Deputy spokesman Tom Casey also said a joint US-UN investigation would be made into why the samples had been stored in the office, but stressed that the chemicals had been there for at least a decade and did not pose any health risk.
"One of the things we want to do is make sure that the UN, working with the FBI, does conduct a full investigation of this, so we're absolutely certain how they in fact got there, how long they were there, and the kind of exact nature of how this came about," he told reporters.