September 13, 2002

Series Panel Focuses On Weapons, Terror

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As the fourth panel discussion in a five-part series concerned with the aftermath of Sept. 11, three panelists spoke to an audience of approximately 35 people yesterday on “The Weapons of Terror.”


The panelists included Prof. Judith Reppy, science and technology and associate director of the peace studies program, Prof. Donald Schlafer, biomedical sciences, and Prof. Kathryn Boor, food science. W. Kent Fuchs, dean of the college of engineering, moderated the discussion.

Schlafer commented on the government’s increasing suspicion of scientists since Sept. 11 and the ensuing anthrax scare, during which five people died and 27 were infected.


“[Government officials] think a scientist must have been involved,” in the dissemination of anthrax through the mail, Schlafer said, and have reacted by questioning many researchers’ activities.

He cited a recent letter that the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent to many researchers asking them, “to declare what infectious agents or toxins we [scientists] had in our own labs.”

Schlafer then presented what he thought was a plausible scenario of bioterrorism through domestic animal populations.

“People who wish to do us harm might do so through our animal agriculture,” Schlafer said.

He described various diseases, like foot and mouth disease or anthrax, which could pass from animal populations to people.

Cows, for instance, could spread a disease “ever so readily,” he said.

Schlafer cited the outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in England in 2000 as an example of what could happen if widespread contamination of livestock occurred in the U.S. He showed images of millions of sheep being burned in order to contain the FMD outbreak.

“It’s almost as disastrous as the images of the Twin Towers,” he added.

He also said he believed catching an outbreak early was the key to containment.

“Had they caught [FMD] even one day earlier, they [the English government] probably could have stopped it months and months earlier,” he said.

A biological attack using farm animals would be relatively easy, Schlafer said, because farm animal populations are concentrated within relatively few areas in the U.S.

“Animals are much more intensely located than they were before. That adds to the problem,” he said. “A single animal becoming ill could lead to disaster.”

Reppy addressed concerns about President Bush’s recent threats to attack Iraq. She said that she did not agree that attacking Iraq to prevent them from producing weapons of mass destruction was a good idea.

“There’s no question that he [Sadaam Hussein] has chemical weapons,” Reppy said, adding that she thought a war against Iraq would only make Middle Eastern nations angry with the U.S.

In her presentation, Boor stressed the improbability of a bioterrorist organization attacking the U.S. food supply.

According to Boor, contaminants that could easily be distributed through food would not be severe enough for potential terrorists.

“Contaminants’ effects are short-term … not very interesting to those who would like to reduce our confidence,” she said.

However, Boor did explain the possible ways that terrorists could contaminate food, citing everything from salmonella to pieces of glass inserted into the food supply during processing or while in the supermarket. She cited previous isolated cases of food contamination.

“This is not a new idea,” she said. “Food tasters in medieval times had to take a bite of everything their masters were going to eat.”

Boor emphasized that the cases did not affect large populations although she and the other panelists did admit that crop dusting planes could accomplish the goal of widespread bioterrorism.

“It was not an implausible scenario” before Sept. 11, Reppy said, but is now because of increased security within the aircraft industry.

Archived article by Maggie Frank