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Nerve gas found at United Nations building

Six to eight vials discovered
Posted: August 30, 2007
United Nations building
The United Nations building

United Nations weapons inspectors discovered six to eight vials of a dangerous nerve gas, phosgene, as they were cleaning out offices at a U.N. building in New York Thursday morning.

Officials say the vials were probably taken from Iraq's main chemical weapons facility 11 years ago.
"There is no immediate risk or danger," U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.

She said there was no evacuation of the office of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission known as UNMOVIC, about a block north of U.N. headquarters on Manhattan's east side, and U.S. authorities were called in to dispose of the material.

Okabe said one of the substances, identified Wednesday, was phosgene suspended in oil, "whose present state is unknown but which could be potentially hazardous."

Phosgene can be used as a chemical weapon, and was used extensively in World War I, as a choking agent. Both phosgene gas and liquid can damage skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

UNMOVIC spokesman Ewen Buchanan said the phosgene was in liquid form, suspended in the oil, in a soda-can-sized container. It was found in a sealed plastic bag that included "unknown liquid substances contained in metal and glass containers ranging in size from small vials to tubes the length of a pen," she said.

"The only information we have of the contents of that bag is from an inventory of a 1996 inspection, which indicates that one of the items may contain phosgene, an old generation chemical warfare agent," Okabe said.

Okabe said the material was immediately secured by UNMOVIC experts and the U.N. sought assistance from U.S. authorities in having the material safely removed. The U.N. was informed that the FBI was going to the office Thursday to remove and dispose of the material, she said.

"The office area was screened using UNOMVIC's chemical weapons detection equipment. No toxic vapors were found. There is no immediate risk or danger. UNMOVIC staff are still working on the premises," Okabe said.

Buchanan said a second sealed package contained tiny samples of chemical agents in sealed glass tubes shaped like pens that are used by inspectors to identify chemical agents. Each of these reference standards contained less than a gram of chemical material, he said.

Buchanan said the material was discovered August 24, put in double zip-locked bags, and locked in a safe in a room that is double-locked. The only marking on the material was an inventory number, he said.

UNMOVIC has 1,400 linear feet of files and it took until Wednesday to find the inventory the number matched which indicated that the material was from Iraq's main chemical weapons facility at Muthana, near Samarra.

The State Department said it had learned of the discovery late Wednesday and had immediately contacted the FBI to deal with the disposal.

Former U.N. weapons inspectors told that vials of phosgene had also been used by inspectors in Iraq to help calibrate air sampling instruments.

The former inspectors said the remaining vials were supposed to have been destroyed.

"If it is properly sealed, it should not pose much of a threat unless it is dropped," said former New York City emergency services director Jerry Hauer, an ABC News consultant.

"They need to get it out of there and put it in a safe canister," Hauer said. "It shows immense stupidity to have that kind of thing sitting around as a souvenir."

According to the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control, phosgene at room temperature is a poisonous, colorless gas with a suffocating odor like newly mown hay.

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