New test could help track down and prosecute terrorists

The latest episode in the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) award-winning “Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions” podcast series describes the development of a new test that could help track down and prosecute terrorists.

Amid concerns about the threat of terrorist attacks, scientists have been seeking better protection for the U.S. and other nations. One such team has developed a technique that could help authorities catch terrorists and put them out of business. A report on the development appeared in ACS’ journal Analytical Chemistry, and became the topic of the new podcast.

Nerve agents like sarin, or GB, are some of the most dangerous terrorist threats. Although traces of these substances would remain after an attack, there has been no practical way of tracing the remains backward in time — to the company from which they were purchased or possibly to the terrorists who bought them.

In the podcast, Carlos Fraga, Ph.D., of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Wash., explains that his team has developed a first-of-its-kind technology that could help law enforcement officials trace the residues from terrorist attacks involving nerve gas and other chemical agents back to the companies or other sources from which the perpetrators obtained ingredients for the agent.

The researchers used a method called “impurity profiling” that identifies impurities in a GB sample at a crime scene and matches them like a fingerprint to the impurities in the source chemicals, pinpointing the likely source. They found that up to 88 percent of the impurities in source chemicals used to make GB can wind up in the finished product, and these impurities are unique, like a fingerprint.

So exactly how would these “fingerprints” help the FBI, police and other federal law enforcement officials? Using standard laboratory instruments, the scientists did impurity profiling and correctly identified the starting materials used for two different batches of GB. This may one day become a basis for using impurity profiling to help find and prosecute perpetrators of chemical attacks, says Fraga.

The new podcast is available without charge at iTunes and from the American Chemical Society website.

 
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