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Fact Sheet Number 1

The Threat from Botulism

Last Updated: 27 Feb 1998

 Botulism is the one of the world's deadliest tools for biological warfare or biological terrorism. Botulism is a "biotoxin," a natural poison given off by the cell structure of a tiny microscopic organism called botulinum. Botulinum itself does not make you sick. The poisons it produces are what kill you. The concentrated form of botulinum is called botulinus toxin.

How dangerous is botulism? It only takes two one-hundredths of a milligram (0.02 mg) of botulism to kill a full grown adult. That means that one milligram (1 mg) can kill fifty (50) people, one gram (1 gm) can kill fifty thousand (50,000) people, and one kilogram (about two and a half pounds) can kill fifty million (50,000,000) people! Botulism can be absorbed through the skin, through the lungs, through the eyes, or through the mucous membranes. In as little as six hours you start the rapid slide to a gruesome and ugly death. First there is paralysis and then respiratory failure. Death comes in 3 to 8 days depending on the dose.

Botulism is a favorite weapon of rogue nations and terrorist groups for biological warfare and biological terrorism for two reasons. First, the botulinum microbe occurs normally in nature. For example, it occurs in the soil and occurs naturally in low acids foods that have spoiled. We put nitrites in canned foods to keep them from becoming contaminated with botulism. There is a ready supply of the original microbe for development as a weapon. One live cell is all you need to start your precursor batch to finally make the thousands of gallons. Second, botulinum is the most deadly of all naturally occurring biotoxins.

Understanding the Threat

To understand the seriousness of the threat, remember that one ounce equals 28.350 grams. This means that one ounce of pure botulinus toxin can kill one million four hundred seventeen thousand five hundred (1,417,500) people. This represents the entire population of the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

One pound of botulinus toxin can kill twenty-two million six hundred eighty thousand (22,680,000) people. One quart (two pounds) of botulinus toxin can kill forty-five million three hundred sixty thousand (45,360,000) people. Pure botulinus toxin in an amount equal to two 20 ounce soft drinks has enough poison to kill almost 57 million people, or nearly the entire population of France!

The key to botulism being used as a weapon is what is called "aerosolization." It must be put into a liquid so it can be used as a spray or vapor.

Biological Warfare: The Threat from Iraq

Saddam Hussein loves botulism as a weapon. After the Gulf War, UN Inspectors found and destroyed one hundred thirty thousand gallons (130,000 gallons) of botulinus toxin alone.

A Scud missile filled with botulinus toxin could affect an area of 3,700 sq. kilometers (1,429 square miles), an area 16 times larger than can be affected with an equal amount of Sarin gas. Unlike nuclear and high-tech weapons that are exorbitantly expensive, the cost of making and using a botulism bomb is roughly $1.00 per square kilometer. Botulinus toxin can be delivered from rifle grenades, mortar rounds, artillery rounds, bombs, air-to-ground rockets (e.g., from helicopters), from Scud warheads, from land mines, from sprayers, sprinklers, and aerosol equipment, and from harmless looking booby traps of various kinds.

Symptoms and Treatment

The initial symptoms are nausea and diarrhea, which can begin in as little as four hours after inhaling or swallowing the toxin. The lethal dose varies with body size, basic health, and age of the victim. For example, infants under twelve months of age can die in as little as twelve hours from botulism, displaying symptoms similar to crib death. For all age groups, the general symptoms are weakness, dizziness, respiratory paralysis, and finally death. If administered soon enough, an antitoxin can stop the progress of the disease. However, botulism is a neurotoxin. It binds to the receptors on nerve endings,enters the nerve, and interferes with the release of neurotransmitters. For all practical purposes, the nerve cells are destroyed. There is no cure for any of the physical damage done to the victim by botulism before the antitoxin is administered.

Defenses to Botulism

Formaldehyde kills botulism spores on surfaces.

Boiling foods at 212 degrees fahrenheit for at least ten minutes kills the toxins but not the spores. (At altitudes above 1,000 feet, add an extra minute of boiling time for each 1,000 feet.) Foods are safe to eat after ten - twenty minutes of boiling. (But remember that it takes more than six hours of boiling at 212 degrees fahrenheit to kill the spores!)

Pressure cooking foods at temperatures above 240 degrees fahrenheit kills the spores as well as the toxins.

 Botulism spores cannot grow in honey or in canning sugars. However, botulism spores may be dormant in raw honey. When the honey is eaten the spores can multiply in the digestive system, leading to illness and sometimes death. The risk from raw honey is especially great for small infants.

Since botulism can penetrate the skin as well as the eyes and mucous membranes, in the event of a botulism terror attack where lethal doses are being carried by the wind, one must cover the entire body with a protective overgarment and cover the face with protective goggles and a gas mask.

Protective shelters can be devised using a closed room which must be insulated with plastic or other nonpermeable material and which must be ventilated with filtered air.

As a safety precaution even before such an attack, do not eat raw or undercooked foods such as okra, asparagus, peas, corn, lima beans, green beans, or mushrooms. If a biological terror attack is suspected, never eat uncooked foods of any kind!

There is no effective vaccine for botulism! A vaccine exists, but the amount required to make the patient immune would cause death. Taking the proper precautions ahead of time and possessing the proper equipment to survive during a terrorist attack is the only vaccine!

 List of Equipment Needed by Emergency Services Responders in the Event of Biological Emergency. Equipment Caches for the Response to Terrorist Incidents, Policy Statement Proposed by the Hazardous Materials Committee and Approved by the IAFC Board of Directors August 1997. Emergency Response to Chemical/Biological Terrorist Incidents, By: Clark L. Staten, Executive Director, Emergency Response & Research Institute 08/07/97,

List of Chemicals and Biological Agents most likely to be encountered by Emergency Service Responders in the event of Bio/Chem war or Biological/Chemical Terrorism. Symptoms, risks, permanent effects table, treatment and survival strategies.

Information About Clostridium Botulinum. (1) US Gov FDA. (2) Types, Treatment, and Safety Practices. (3) Charts and Data:UC Davis. (4) Basic Fact Sheet About Botulinal Toxins.

List of Airborne Pathogens: Airborne Pathogens Database. (Six pages. Type this link into your browser at file/open.)

Weapons of Mass Destruction: Chemical/Biological Incident Response Planning

Biological Warfare Defense Information Sheet: (U.S. Navy)

General Notes on Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents. Under construction.





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Last Updated: Tue, Sep 25, 2001