There was just one loophole in Tour¿s argument: he is an established name and could probably order just about any chemical from Sigma-Aldrich he wanted. What about the rest of us? Surely we couldn¿t just call up a supplier and buy the ingredients for sarin? Yet Tour contended that most suppliers don¿t do any screening of their buyers. "You just go to an online distributor, you give them a credit card number and it comes in the mail," he says.
And so it was. Scientific American placed our own order from a small local supply house and the materials arrived a few days later. To some extent, it wasn¿t a fair test, either, because the president of the company turned out to be a longtime reader of the magazine. But I could have been faking it.
Nerve agent experts agree that something has to be done to keep tabs on such chemicals, especially since the other difficulties of mounting a gas attack seem less daunting after September 11. Says Rudy J. Richardson of the University of Michigan, "Some of the barriers that we might have thought would be there¿like, Can terrorists disperse the agent and then escape?¿are not there. Today¿s terrorists don¿t care if they escape."
Some worry that restrictions would put an undue burden on industry, which has legitimate uses for the chemicals, and wouldn¿t stop a determined terrorist anyway. But firms already manage with controls on drug-related chemicals, and some protection would be better than no protection. "Everybody points out the ways in which a monitoring system could be bypassed, and I¿m the first to agree," Tour says. "But the thing is, right now there¿s nothing to have to bypass."
A version of this article will appear in the December 2001 issue of Scientific American. Subscribe TODAY and SAVE!
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