Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why The Delay?

There are numerous reports today that people working at the UN discovered vials of phosgene gas while cleaning the offices of UNMOVIC. The workers, members of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, were wrapping up operations in their offices, when they came across a number of vials, which turned out to be phosgene suspended in oil.

Phosgene is a choking agent and is properly considered a chemical weapon, not a nerve agent as the ABC News story reported. That's a minor quibble that should have been corrected pre-publication with a quick Google search or simply perusing the website for details.

However, it is troubling that the media reports, based on UN press releases, suggest that UNMOVIC discovered these items on August 24, and the UN didn't identify the items until yesterday:
"On Friday 24th August 2007 in archiving UNSCOM files, UNMOVI staff discovered two small plastic packages with metal and glass containers (ranging in size from small vials to tubes the length of a pen) with unknown liquid substances. The archives are located at the UNMOVIC headquarters, 866 East 48th Street, 3rd and 6th floors.

"An initial investigation has revealed that these items were recovered from a former Iraqi chemical weapons facility, al Muthamma, by UNSCOM inspectors in 1996.

"It was only on 29 August, however, that the inspection report containing an inventory of the items was recovered. The inventory shows that one of the items may contain phosgene (COCL2) suspended in oil -- an old generation chemical warfare agent. The inventory also indicated that the other package contains Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) reference standards in sealed glass tubes. These standards are used to calibrate chemical analytical equipment.

"UNMOVIC has confirmed that normally such items would have been transported directly to appropriately equipped laboratories for analysis and not sent to UNSCOM/ UNMOVIC headquarters in New York. In the past, UNSCOM chemical samples were sent via military transport directly to Edgewood labs."
Why was there a delay in informing federal, city, and state officials? The UN says that no one was in any danger (unless the vials were dropped), and no evacuations were required. That's comforting.

The vials were there since 1996 - 11 years.

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