There has only been one semi-successful chemical attack in a subway system. Given the high number of riders in urban systems, the limited nature of emergency exit routes, and the somewhat restricted air flow, it would seem to be a natural terrorist target for employing chemical weapons. It is with this in mind that Secretary Napolitano announced yesterday that DHS and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) announced that they would be conducting a chemical dispersion study in MBTA subways this month.
According to the announcement the DHS Science & Technology Directorate-led study “will examine the behavior of airborne contaminants if they were to be released into the subway”. The study will involve the release of non-toxic chemicals representing gasses, small particulates, and simulated biological agents. Detectors will be placed in tunnels, subway stations, and subway cars to study the dispersion patterns of these trace chemicals.
Information gained from this study will allow scientists to more accurately predict the way that chemical and biological agents would move throughout the subway system in the event of a deliberate attack or even an accidental spill. This will allow subway systems to more accurately develop emergency response plans for such incidents.
Since al Qaeda has proven their interest in attacking public transportation facilities by their attacks on such systems in London and Madrid, it is only fitting that this study would have international support. Participating in the study will be scientists from Defence Science and Technology Laboratory of the United Kingdom; and Chemistry Centre of Australia, as well as such domestic organizations as Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) of Argonne, Ill.; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) of Berkeley, Calif.; and ICx Technologies of Arlington, Va.
While this study will not directly affect the chemical security community, it is clearly understood that there are a number of theft/diversion chemicals of interest produced in this country that could conceivably be used in conducting a chemical attack on such transit facilities. Anything that can be done to reduce the likelihood of such an attack will help to reduce the threat terrorist attacks to steal or divert such chemicals from CFATS covered facilities.