Microscopic bits of metal that float in the air in the aftermath of a terrorist attack could become a threat to national security, said an Italian pathologist.
“Nanoparticles are physical pathogens that could be used for a new, cheap form of terrorism,” Antonietta Gatti, a researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology’s Project on Nanoecotoxicology, said at the 2011 Biosecurity Conference in Washington, D.C.
The particles are found in commercial products such as jogging T-shirts that employ silver to control odor. Such tiny bits of metals burning at extremely high temperatures can disperse dangerous fumes, she said. Bombs and high velocity armor-piercing ammunition that spread metal particles in the air are examples of this process, she added.
The particles are inhaled by soldiers and civilians or ingested when they eat animals that graze on plants exposed to them. The non-biodegradable, metallic nanoparticles are smaller than red blood cells and work their way quickly through the bloodstream, settling in organs and causing an array of adverse effects, she said.
Gatti believes nanoparticles are the cause of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in some Italian soldiers she examined who served in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans.
“This new investigation can help in understanding why there are these diseases,” she said.
After Sept. 11, many rescue workers and bystanders in New York became ill with “mysterious diseases.” In some of her studies of these victims, Gatti found gold, cerium, silicone and other toxic nanoparticles in their organs. “[They have] symptoms that don’t fit specific pathologies,” she said.
The delayed effect produced by nanoparticles presents a major security threat in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, because there are no countermeasures developed yet to protect humans or animals, Gatti said. With no defenses against them, nanoparticles could also be used in a direct attack, she added.
“I can describe a new scenario, and this scenario is not expensive for terrorists. And it is safer [for them] than the normal terrorist attack,” she said.