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Sodium Azide.
December 1, 2006 1:00 AM   Subscribe

There is a killer lurking in your local auto wrecking yard. Sodium Azide, the chemical used in automobile air bags, is available to anyone who asks for it. Conceivably anyone could obtain several pounds of this poison, yet it takes only a few grams to kill. A late model SUV will have enough in it's air bags to kill a couple of hundred people.

It explodes. It kills on contact with the skin. It kills via air, food, or water. It is odorless and colorless. There is no antidote. Even minor exposure will result in permanent damage to brain cells. University of Arizona atmospheric scientist Eric Betterton was one of the first to expose the hazards of this unregulated material in 2000. The author J. A. Jance used it as the poison of choice in her book 'Partners in Crime'.

The perfect terrorist weapon? It would seem so, but the Federal government doesn't regulate it's post-manufacture distribution. Got a grudge? Go pick up a few hundred pounds.
posted by altman (76 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
So we have this problem in computer security.

Attackers have long been capable of doing far more damage, than they've actually chosen to do. It has actually always been, at least in computer security, that capability for harm is only weakly predictive.

This makes it difficult to predict which harms to actually suppress. Not impossible, but certainly not easier.

In the real world, there's just so many things that can kill you. Ricin can be grown trivially. So can botulism. There's innumerable things that can harm you...the reality is that mere capability isn't enough to predict actual harm.

Security isn't easy, borders or not.
posted by effugas at 1:08 AM on December 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


Yikes!
posted by retronic at 1:09 AM on December 1, 2006


What about the gasoline left in the cars? It's carcenogenic, toxic, explosive, flamable... yet it's freaking everywhere.

And let's not forget the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide people!
posted by Pollomacho at 1:11 AM on December 1, 2006


After posting this I found that Oregon has passed a law to control the auto wrecking industry and it's handling of Sodium Azide.

It is interesting to note that even with this regulation it is still legal to own, outside of the ones installed in your car, two additional Sodium Azide cannisters. That is probably enough to kill a few hundred people. Add those that are in your car and the toll mounts.

But baby steps at the state level are better than no steps at the federal level.
posted by altman at 1:28 AM on December 1, 2006


The scary thing about dihydrogen monoxide is that we need it, but too much of it can kill you. And, because of technicological "progress" every household in America has easy access to it, in spite of how dangerous it is.

In all seriousness, how do people not immediately die whenever their airbags go off?
posted by ztdavis at 1:32 AM on December 1, 2006


How many tons of amonium nitrate are you allowed to purchase at one time from a farm store?
posted by Pollomacho at 1:32 AM on December 1, 2006


If terrorists are so desperate to kill us all, that they will root around in scraped cars like pigs hunting truffles, then I say let them. Not sure how much of a threat this really is, am sure I have enough of Federal Government.
posted by econous at 1:35 AM on December 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


This is actually a sparkling-clear object lesson which aptly describes the overwhelming futility of security.


Err, I mean: omg terrah!!

*jumps up, panics, runs, trips over shoelaces, impales face and brain on the sharp scissors in each hand, dies*
posted by loquacious at 1:51 AM on December 1, 2006


How many tons of amonium nitrate are you allowed to purchase at one time from a farm store?

Aren't you supposed to be registered to buy and sell ammonium nitrate in the USA?

I know that it's a controlled substance in the UK. You certainly get noticed if you buy lots.
posted by public at 1:54 AM on December 1, 2006


While we're all preoccupied with these exotic poisons, a silent killer is lurking behind the scenes. Beware DHMO!
posted by Clamwacker at 2:17 AM on December 1, 2006


Never mind the airbags - cars themselves kill quite routinely and regularly. Based on WHO estimates over a million people a year dead and 40 million a year injured.
posted by srboisvert at 2:26 AM on December 1, 2006


So this 'amonium nitrate' is it something gayers and other party animals sniff? If so there is no need to go to a 'farm store' (whatever the hell that scary concept is) it's available in cheeky shops. Bit of a head rush if ask me, hardly a threat to the nation.
posted by econous at 2:26 AM on December 1, 2006


Clamwacker, sorry did you say delmoi? Or did you read Pollomacho's comment?
posted by econous at 2:29 AM on December 1, 2006


Econous, you're thinking of amyl nitrite.
posted by Ian A.T. at 3:21 AM on December 1, 2006


I've always liked the "stab everyone you see with a knife" or "punch everyone in the face" example. If everyone who wanted to be with teh terrorists did this today, there would be a lot of injuries. Should we worry about getting punched in the face or stabbed by scary brown guys? Or should we just remember that we live under a social structure where we expect people to not do this? There's a reason we haven't already died in a nuclear holocaust, too- PEOPLE DON'T ALWAYS USE THE WEAPONS THEY HAVE AVAILABLE TO THEM.
posted by rxrfrx at 3:41 AM on December 1, 2006


cars themselves kill quite routinely and regularly

Horray for srboisvert for injecting overlooked common sense

On top of this there is the the most easily avaiable, most dangerous chemical ever : gasoline.

Yet if many, including you, didn't know..then you would be safer wouldn't you ? The side benefit of ignorance is that you don't panic that much, but you are also much much more governable by any scaremongering asshole.
posted by elpapacito at 3:44 AM on December 1, 2006


The FPP would be awesome if it were read by the slightly gravelly voiceover guy for the local FOX affiliate's local news.

HANK INVESTIGATES!
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:59 AM on December 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


PEOPLE DON'T ALWAYS USE THE WEAPONS THEY HAVE AVAILABLE TO THEM.

Or alternatively, as Chekhov said, if there's a gun on the mantelpiece in Act One, it'll get fired in Act Three. I reckon we're just finishing Act One with "teh nukes".
posted by imperium at 4:10 AM on December 1, 2006


You just can't have enough fear in your life. Now, if they have "no evidence to corroborate the threat" they can keep you paranoid enough to show them your socks and surrender your fluids with an "aspirational threat".
posted by crispynubbins at 4:18 AM on December 1, 2006


econous, if you meant amyl nitrate, that's something else. If you knew that, and were making a joke, it needs some work.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:30 AM on December 1, 2006


Or you could surrender your fluids with a perspirational threat.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:31 AM on December 1, 2006


The FPP would be awesome if it were read by the slightly gravelly voiceover guy for the local FOX affiliate's local news.

You jackin' it?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:33 AM on December 1, 2006


"Even minor exposure will result in permanent damage to brain cells."

Irrelevant. When has brain cell damage stopped us from doing silly thing like watching TV, using controlled and uncontrolled substances just for the fun of it and listening to politicians?
posted by nkyad at 4:52 AM on December 1, 2006


*sets hair on fire, runs screaming in circles*
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:54 AM on December 1, 2006


What is the chance of this substance leaking into the ground water? That's my first thought when it involves any kind of dumping. Doesn't require terror or deliberate acts from anyone. Just neglect.
posted by Goofyy at 5:16 AM on December 1, 2006


The world isn't covered in cushions and edge protectors for your safety. If there's one thing that's true it's that there's a never ending way that people can find to harm themselves or harm somebody else. Most people don't do this and so you're reasonably safe. The descriptions of Sodium Azide actually match Carbon Monoxide and even the Wikipedia page says that the mechanisms are similar. The Straight Dope article you linked to shows one example of its use and then reports of allegations of it's acquisition by terrorists.

It sounds like there is a problem in it's disposal, any sufficiently hazardous material should have accepted means of disposal and failures to follow the methods should have steep penalties and hysteria aside it does sound like Sodium Azide fits the bill, though I'm more concerned about accidental exposure or environmental damage than as a tool of terrorism.
posted by substrate at 5:22 AM on December 1, 2006


If you read the wikipedia article you'll notice that the summary provided by this post is slightly more dangerous sounding what is actually described. The brain damage comes from serious exposure, not slight.
posted by cellphone at 5:40 AM on December 1, 2006


Somehow the thin tissue of culture does provide a shield, just think of all the cinder blocks that aren't thrown off highway overpasses on a daily basis.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:46 AM on December 1, 2006


If you read the wikipedia article

Wait, now I'm suddenly expected to read the text in the link?
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:49 AM on December 1, 2006


Thee perfect terrorist weapon is fear. Its everywhere too.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:51 AM on December 1, 2006


In all seriousness, how do people not immediately die whenever their airbags go off?

Because it's not released as a gas when the airbags are deployed.

It is odorless and colorless

It's only odorless as a solid. Apparently it smells quite terrible when converted into a liquid or gas, which are the far more likely dispersal methods of someone wanting to kill lots of people. I think that point alone would make it imperfect as a terrorist weapon.
posted by saraswati at 5:52 AM on December 1, 2006


As I've been saying, you should ban liquids, solids and gases from being taken on airplanes. And living matter.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:55 AM on December 1, 2006


dances_with_sneetches : "As I've been saying, you should ban liquids, solids and gases from being taken on airplanes. And living matter."

I think we should ban airplanes altogether - after all, who needs to go from point A to point B so fast? Only criminals on the run and terrorists up to no good. Honest people can always make their travel plans in advance, allowing for the time required to get there by car, bus or ship. I say, airplanes are military grade weapons - civilian use should be banned or severely restricted.
posted by nkyad at 6:05 AM on December 1, 2006


I think we should ban airplanes altogether

It's this kind of liberal soft response that really gets me going. Why can't you just admit that the only real solution is to stay inside our blast shelters and pray to god that when we emerge weekly to get our food rations a terrorist doesn't jump in front of us and blow sodium azide in our face?
posted by saraswati at 6:13 AM on December 1, 2006


*sets hair on fire, runs screaming in circles*
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:54 AM EST on December 1[+][!]


mmmm.... baked chicken....
posted by SteveInMaine at 6:13 AM on December 1, 2006


I care because?

I mean seriously, how many "Poisons" are there out there? Last I checked the sale of castor beans (source of ricin!) was not regulated either, nor the supply of rat poison. Unless there is a really obvious delivery path then this Azide stuff just isn't a threat anyway.

So yeah, bullshit scaremongering. Like George Carlin once said "Take a fucking risk!"
posted by delmoi at 6:22 AM on December 1, 2006


So, wait, does this stuff dissolve in water? Any sedimentation? How about odor or taste? And what kind of inundation can you get before the water gets saturated?

... I ask only out of the idlest curiousity, you understand.
posted by kafziel at 6:25 AM on December 1, 2006


*starts listening to "paranoid" by black sabbath*
posted by koeselitz at 6:25 AM on December 1, 2006


Thee perfect terrorist weapon is fear. Its everywhere too.

And who's responsible for this insidious weapon?

*looks directly at the camera*

All of us.
posted by horsewithnoname at 6:29 AM on December 1, 2006


Seriously - going through the links, this is not that good a terrorist weapon/toxin. Maybe in the way a dirty bomb freaks everyone out with residual radioactivity.
It was tested at low doses as a blood pressure medicine back in the fifties and at low doses for three years only headaches were the regular side effect. Those low doses are the exposures you would be getting from mass dispersion, except for the unlucky persons near the source.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:37 AM on December 1, 2006


Semi-related airbag detonator random terror. (PDF Ad)
posted by Burhanistan at 6:44 AM on December 1, 2006


as Chekhov said

He was a wise and fair helmsman.
posted by grubi at 6:49 AM on December 1, 2006


How come in the link under 'It kills' there is no mention of danger of death? Just Hypertension and several other non-lethal side effects.

Did I miss something? Meh.
posted by sfts2 at 6:57 AM on December 1, 2006


as Chekhov said

You know, he told me the exact same thing when I met him.
posted by papakwanz at 7:06 AM on December 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


Sodium azide is some cool shit. I used to work for an airbag manufacturer and one of the things they did during training was take us outside away from the building and light off a few tablets of sodium azide for us so we could see how powerful even a small amount could be.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:25 AM on December 1, 2006


I think we should ban airplanes altogether

I think we should bun internal combustion engine ! COMBUSTION, get it ?
posted by elpapacito at 7:33 AM on December 1, 2006


Somehow the thin tissue of culture does provide a shield, just think of all the cinder blocks that aren't thrown off highway overpasses on a daily basis.

I used to work in a tissue culture lab, buddy. A plate full of CHO cells does NOTHING to deflect or render harmless flying cinder blocks. NOTHING1one!eleven!!1

Seriously though, we used azide to help clean our equipment, AND I used the above-mentioned ricin, a lectin, in experiments designed to select cells with altered membrane glycoconjugate expression (who hasn't?). Ricin is really scary stuff on the cellular level - one molecule can kill one cell, which is pretty much the maximum killing efficiency of any compound.

We handled ricin with care, naturally, especially when opening the little phial with the "dry" ricin that we'd use in preparing various dilutions to perform the experiments. But when you spend hours and hours, day after day, working with gloves under a vent hood, preparing hundreds of wells and then plopping various dilutions of ricin (and other lectins) into the wells, it's inevitable that you'll spill some of the stuff. I did, I freaked out a little, and my boss told me to clean up the mess with a little alcohol. That's what I did, and I didn't die.

This is when I realized that ricin, as a poison, is better in theory than in practice. It's a protein, and doesn't absorb well through the skin and mucous membranes (too large). There was one successful assassination performed with ricin, this by the Bulgarian spy service, involving an umbrella and a microscopic metal pellet packed with ricin. This attack was effective because the protein was introduced into the victim's blood, where it (slowly) worked its black magic.

The reason ricin was chosen is because it is not something anyone would look for in a tox screen, and it produces symptoms that resemble an infection. Clever for espionage, but lousy for killing people in bunches. As a WMD, ricin leaves much to be desired, and that is the case with most biologics and, apparently, with azide as well.
posted by Mister_A at 7:41 AM on December 1, 2006


altman: This is interesting, I guess. And, from what crash says, it sounds like this stuff really is explosive. But the reason people are calling you inflammatory and fearmongering is because you forgot to provide a link saying it caused death in humans. All I can find in the "it kills" link is a reference to studies from the forties in which it caused severe discomfort nausea, and collapse. Maybe that's bad enough, but maybe you can tell us exactly how you could kill lots of people with this stuff. I don't know that it's possible.
posted by koeselitz at 7:47 AM on December 1, 2006


Even minor exposure will result in permanent damage to brain cells.

Bullshit. Read the CDC article you posted again. Sheesh. What an alarmist.
posted by Doohickie at 7:51 AM on December 1, 2006


Sodium azide.

Pertaining to the topic at hand:
# Breathing the gas that is formed from sodium azide causes the most harm, but ingesting (swallowing) sodium azide can be toxic as well.

# The gas formed from sodium azide is most dangerous in enclosed places where the gas will be trapped. The toxic gas quickly disperses in open spaces, making it less harmful outdoors.

# The gas formed from sodium azide is less dense (lighter) than air, so it will rise.
posted by Mister_A at 7:52 AM on December 1, 2006


"...from what crash says, it sounds like this stuff really is explosive"

Actually, we were repeatedly told that it's not explosive, but instead is "very fast-burning". I guess there's some sort of official line to cross between "very fast-burning" and "explosive", and sodium azide didn't cross that line. I don't know anything about chemistry, though, so they could have been feeding us a line, but I doubt it.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:57 AM on December 1, 2006


Maybe the difference is whether or not there's propellant force in the reaction?
posted by kafziel at 8:00 AM on December 1, 2006


You can actually use sodium azide as rocket fuel. Combustion rapidly produces a shitload of nitrogen gas (that's what happens when your airbag goes off).
posted by Mister_A at 8:07 AM on December 1, 2006


There are so many poisons commercially available to anybody who wants them. Why is this notable? Maybe if you had taken a more environmental standpoint, instead of lumping it into the bandwagon of "OMG TEH HUMMLAND SECURITAH"...
posted by tehloki at 8:08 AM on December 1, 2006


Actually, we were repeatedly told that it's not explosive, but instead is "very fast-burning". I guess there's some sort of official line to cross between "very fast-burning" and "explosive", and sodium azide didn't cross that line.

If the rate of burn of the material is faster than the speed of sound in that said material, it is an explosion. If it's slower -- it's not.

As far as the topic of the thread... Altman discovered chemistry, people. He'll figure it out, eventually.
posted by c13 at 8:26 AM on December 1, 2006


I have had quite enough of you people and your reasonable statements based on science and empirical evidence. What I want is flailing speculation spouted by feckless nincompoops including all the requisite government sanctioned talking points. Actually, I can get that from the mainstream press and those wonderful free newspapers on public transport.

Carry on.
posted by asok at 8:47 AM on December 1, 2006


There's no sodium azide in airbags, what inflates them is popcorn.
posted by dov3 at 8:58 AM on December 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


The perfect terrorist weapon?

No. The perfect terrorist weapon is overreaction caused by misinformation.
posted by moonbiter at 9:00 AM on December 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


You know what else your car has?

About two gallons of antifreeze.

It is lethal if ingested in amounts around two tablespoons, and tastes pretty good, to boot. So each car could kill 256 people, with just the antifreeze! OMFG!!

Seriously, this post is silly.

Every year the cars themselves kill more people than sodium azide ever has or ever will.
posted by teece at 9:32 AM on December 1, 2006


Two gallons? What kind of car do you drive? A go-cart?
posted by c13 at 9:47 AM on December 1, 2006


Thee perfect terrorist weapon is fear. Its everywhere too.
Don't say I didn't tell you.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:02 AM on December 1, 2006


Sodium azide is an unusual explosive in that the shockwave isn't propagated by combustion reactions, but by a pure entropy increase (two molecules of NaN3 -> five molecules, 2Na and 3N2). No part of the molecule plays a role of fuel or oxidant.

There's some more discussion over at an old post of mine.
posted by vira at 10:07 AM on December 1, 2006


"as Chekhov said

He was a wise and fair helmsman."


*smack* Navigator, dammit! (Also apprentice Science Officer.)

"If the rate of burn of the material is faster than the speed of sound in that said material, it is an explosion. If it's slower -- it's not."


Neat! I never knew that. That's a nice fact to know.
posted by zoogleplex at 10:12 AM on December 1, 2006


This thread is still here? Why is this thread still here?

WHY DO YOU WANT TO POISON METAFILTER!??!
posted by loquacious at 10:22 AM on December 1, 2006


That's what I did, and I didn't die.

...yet.
posted by MikeKD at 10:44 AM on December 1, 2006


This thread has permanently damaged my brain cells.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:53 AM on December 1, 2006


Two gallons? What kind of car do you drive? A go-cart?

c13: my car (1999 Chevy Blazer) has 11.9 qts of a 50/50 mixture of ethylene glycol and water, or (almost ) 1.5 gallons of 50% diluted antifreeze. (it could go up to 1.8 gallons if I use a 60/40% mixture).

2 is a nice, easy number, the round-up of 1.5 and 1.8.
posted by teece at 11:03 AM on December 1, 2006


"What I want is flailing speculation spouted by feckless nincompoops including all the requisite government sanctioned talking points."

I have about a hundred grams of this in the lab Asok an I'M COMMING FOR YOUUUUUUU!

Does that give you the thrill you're looking for, or should I hold a flashlight under my chin during the "comming for you part"?

Also, I can't believe that no one mentioned that it inhibits the reaction of horseradish peroxidase! What's wrong with you people? Don't you see the almost signifigant inconvienence this is for me?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:14 PM on December 1, 2006


Actually, we were repeatedly told that it's not explosive, but instead is "very fast-burning". I guess there's some sort of official line to cross between "very fast-burning" and "explosive", and sodium azide didn't cross that line.

An explosive can explode on it's own, while something that 'burns' requires an oxidizer. So, something 'fast burning' will never cause a problem if it's not exposed to air or something else with oxygen in it.

If the rate of burn of the material is faster than the speed of sound in that said material, it is an explosion. If it's slower -- it's not.

No, that's the diffrence between high explosvies like dynamite and low explosives. burning is when something combines with oxygen in the air.
posted by delmoi at 1:04 PM on December 1, 2006


I say, airplanes are military grade weapons - civilian use should be banned or severely restricted.
I agree. When the Founding Fathers talked about "freedom", they couldn't possibly have envisioned technological horrors like aircraft or automobiles! No citizen who isn't a terrorist needs to move any faster than a slow walking pace. Do you really want your drunk, funny-looking neighbor trying to land a 747 in their driveway? It wouldn't even fit! I can't believe people are seriously defending the private ownership of transportation technology, which kills millions of children and cute puppies every year.
posted by hattifattener at 1:07 PM on December 1, 2006


(ps: "Detonation" is what happens in a high explosive, where the reaction propagates faster than the speed of sound, as a shock wave. "Deflagration" is the slower reaction. The same material can detonate under some conditions and deflagrate under others — gasoline-air mixtures are a good example of this. I think what happens in sodium azide is "explosive decomposition".)
posted by hattifattener at 1:11 PM on December 1, 2006


Actually, we were repeatedly told that it's not explosive, but instead is "very fast-burning". I guess there's some sort of official line to cross between "very fast-burning" and "explosive", and sodium azide didn't cross that line.


This stuff doesn't explode but the rapid out gassing is what makes the bag work with the volume and speed needed. In fact when TRW blew up a plant back in the early 90's the people familiar with the event refused to call it an explosion but instead "a rapid uncontrolled over pressurization"
posted by mss at 3:11 PM on December 1, 2006


MetaFilter: a rapid uncontrolled over pressurization.


Nice turn of phrase that. Lends itself to the morning after burrito night.
posted by loquacious at 3:31 PM on December 1, 2006


I'm going to a party tomorrow night and I am going to do my damnedest to work my new-found knowledge of the difference between high and low explosives into the conversation. Thanks, delmoi!
posted by not that girl at 8:43 PM on December 1, 2006


Well, I used the word "burn" rather flippantly. What I meant was more along of Rate of reactants-->products kind of thing. "Deflagration" is subsonic combustion, "detonation" is supersonic. As far as needing air, there is a whole bunch of chemicals that contain both the fuel and the oxidizer, so they don't need air to burn. Smokeless powder is one example, solid rocket propellants is another. They burn, but they don't need air or to do so. Indeed the linked Wikipedia article says exactly that. I quote: Combustion or burning is a complex sequence of chemical reactions between a fuel and an oxidant accompanied by the production of heat or both heat and light in the form of either a glow or flames. Second reaction given is between hydrogen sulfide and fluorine, oxygen plays no part at all.
posted by c13 at 12:20 AM on December 2, 2006


We have jars and jars of sodium azide in my lab, we use it to keep buffers from getting icky from bacteria. I have pretty unlimited and unmonitored access to the chemical storage, so I guess I'm a terrorist now...shit.
posted by nile_red at 6:38 PM on December 2, 2006


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