Beryllium in the Hands of the Terrorists…

BerylliumThe comments on my earlier post about beryllium were too sanguine for our Russian correspondent; G.O. has sent another email warning us about beryllium. He identifies himself as a metallurgist, and his expertise makes him worried about the dangers of beryllium oxide:

In the hands of the terrorists, I believe, beryllium could be more dangerous than radioactive materials which are extremely easy to detect. Be-metal could be converted into the fine powder by firing it in the cheapest pottery kiln.

But most important Be-oxide is undetectable and highly inert. It could be easily mixed with a foodstuff (or almost anything). If terrorists would dump Be-oxide powder in the air conditioning/heating system of a building — few weeks later — suddenly every occupant of that building will get ill having (seems to be) a fast progressing lung cancer. If I would have a horrible dilemma to choose to be exposed to a dirty-bomb or Be-oxide powder I would choose dirty-bomb in a heart beat. The chance of surviving a dirty-bomb is very good and it is highly unlikely someone would bring undetected radioactive stuff home and kill the whole family.

Exposure to the Be-oxide dust is very difficult to detect and it is always fatal.

Beryllium toxicity information is usually based on Be-metal info, the fact that the killer is Be-oxide, a fine dust, is always somewhat camouflaged. For example, a machinist working with beryllium bronze (alloy of copper with ~1% Be — very popular family of industrial alloys) could develop beryllium disease in thirty years, but his exposure to Be-oxide is so negligible that it is practically impossible to measure.

Now, I’m an utter layman in these matters. However, I ask the commenters who pooh-poohed the idea of using of beryllium as a terrorist weapon to answer G.O.’s points substantively; i.e., why do you think beryllium oxide is not a concern?

Remember, a ton of beryllium went missing in Sweden a while back. That could make a lot of Be-oxide powder…

I know it’s difficult to work with and transport, but would the payoff be high enough to make it attractive?

11 thoughts on “Beryllium in the Hands of the Terrorists…

  1. Beryllium/Beryllium Oxide is indeed a deadly poison. Formula 1 banned it use years ago as an alloy in pistons on the fear that infinitimal measurable amounts were exhausted during a race.
    OSHA has acceptable levels of 2 micrograms/cubic meter of air as an 8 hour time weighted average.
    This is at the bottom end of measurabilty with most normal detection equipment.
    Allowable maximum exposure is 25 micrograms/cubic meter for a period of up to 30 minutes.
    For perspective, airborne pollutant levels of 5 milligrams/meter cubed are usually not visible – that’s 2000 times more than the maximum per OSHA. Typical clean outside air is 2-5 milligrams/meter cubed (unless it’s pollen season, then all bets are off).

    Bad stuff and as your expert noted, not readily differentiated form any other airborne dust.
    Better dispose of all those old F1 engine parts…

  2. A google search on beryllium oxide toxicity turns up a lot of nasty documents although one from pubmed seems to indicate that the metal may be worse than the oxide as far as lung diseases are concerned. Also it isn’t clear to me that eating either beryllium or beryllium oxide would necessarily be bad – it looks like the powder would mostly pass through the gut untouched.

    Either way it is clear that the “best” propagation method for it is simply a fine dust of low temperature fired beryllium oxide which is inhaled. I don’t see how you could readily distinguish a bag of such dust from some other powder (e.g. flour) which would mean that smuggling it smewhere would be pretty easy if the smuggler were willing to die in the process – or if he were unaware of its toxic nature.

  3. The literature absolutely does not seem to support the strong statement:
    “Exposure to the Be-oxide dust is very difficult to detect and it is always fatal.”

    Always fatal? At any level of exposure? We need a citation for that statement. It seems am extraordinary claim.

    See this and this. It’s toxic and “may cause death”. It somtimes causes Chronic Beryllium Disease (which is a very serious but apparently not 100% fatal disease) So are thousands of easily available industrial chemicals highly toxic. Maybe Formula 1 was moved to ban it, but it may still be in your smoke detector and cell phone, and many other products.

    It has been stated that BeO is toxic at the lowest detection levels. In that case, we’re all in trouble, according to this statement from the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at Rochester University:

    Beryllium is ubiquitous in the environment and can be detected virtually anywhere if a sufficiently large air sample is taken. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System, the United States population is being exposed to detectable background levels of beryllium without any appreciable risk of contracting CBD in their lifetime.

    Seems to me there has never been a successful mass deployment of a powdered weapon. Unlike light gas molecules, powder particles fall. Some slowly, some quite quickly. The average grain density of a metallic powder is probably a good deal higher than that of, say, an anthrax spore.

    I think the main effect of a BeO bomb would be exactly the same as that of a dirty bomb – psychological.

    Finally, Be and BeO have apparently been used in the contruction of nuclear reactors – maybe that’s what the thieves were actually interested in.

  4. Just to add a data point here. When I gave my defense of my Physics Ph.D. one of the professors on the committee was a man who had lost a lung to beryllium poisoning while working on the Manhattan project. There was also a memorial in the Physics Department to a grad student who had died in the early 1950s because he had inadvertently opened an unlabeled package of BeO and inhaled the dust. Yes, it’s nasty dangerous stuff, but terrific as a neutron moderator in nuclear reactors.

  5. As Cato points out, any cursory study of the chemiclas used in industry reveals much of it to be extremely toxic (for instance : chlorine, ammonia). Furthermore, there are large (i.e. thousands of tons) storages of industrial chemicals in populated areas (probably in just about every major city), or transit through on rail.

    So as nasty as beryllium may be, there are better things to watch …..

    “While the Department continues to work with our state, local and industry partners to refine the list of chemical sites, there are roughly 3,000 facilities that could impact over 1,000 people and nearly 300 facilities that could impact 50,000 or more people.” – the DHS.

  6. The point remains: a ton of it was stolen and is unaccounted for. So that in itself bears watching, wouldn’t you say? ‘Twould be a comfort to find it intact in, say, someone’s garage.

    A loose cannon of this stuff is not a happy picture.

  7. Right, Dymphna – it would be nice to know where it went. But there’s a lot of missing crap in the world – including weapons and nuclear material. We can hope they bungle it, but we can’t wish it back.

    fellow peacekeeper is right on. Most large (esp. really large) water and wastewater treatment plants, for instance, keep huge quantities of chlorine gas in compressed gaseous form onsite – enough to kill people over a wide area in the case of catastrophic release. Loads of the stuff head there by train and truck constantly to replenish the supply. Chlorine has saved many millions of lives this century. Very few have died from it, but the danger is always there, by accident if not sabotage. Plants are aware of the danger, and have precautions and disaster plans in place. Unfortunately, these plants are typically not the best run organizations in the country (not many of the top students want to work in a treatment plant every day).

  8. Seems to me there has never been a successful mass deployment of a powdered weapon.

    I think this is the key point and I expect it applies to most biological weapons also: it is difficult to disperse the needed quantities over a large area. The major experience here is probably gas warfare as practiced in WWI, see here. I suspect sarin or mustard gas are much easier deploy and easier to obtain.

    Contagious deseases are another matter entirely because they are spread by people and animals, but good plagues are hard to order up on demand and localize sufficiently to make them a weapon. ‘Course, there are the idiots who would like to get rid of all human life and someday I suspect one of them will give it a go. Advances in genetic engineering aren’t helping here.

  9. Looking for Beryllium oxide dust toxicity finds a bunch of references. One safety sheet from CERN notes that the oxide is very toxic if inhaled. It also notes “if involved in a fire at high temperature (say >800•C) then it will rapidly oxidise and the oxide may contaminate the atmosphere, building and equipment”

    A terrorist might try to contaminate a gathering with Be Oxide, or might generate it on the spot by sticking Be in with some thermite and generating Be smoke.

    The major effect would not necessarily be primarily from killing/sickening people. By contaminating a large area of very expensive real estate you could inflict major economic losses thru decline in property values

  10. Re: beryllium dust poisoning

    Check out Scientific America lead article circa Aug. Sept. Oct. 1959 for an excellent article on the subject.

    My father owned a foundry and used beryllium in his factory to make alloys with specific properties needed in hi-tech industries and government projects. He sold his business when age 67 and now he is nearly 88.


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