August 10, 2006

Liquid Explosives Sit on Bathroom Shelves

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Chemicals sitting in anyone's bathroom at home could be used to make a bomb that would badly damage a passenger jet, and experts have been warning about this danger for years.

British police said they foiled a plot on Thursday to blow up aircraft flying between Britain and the United States, and U.S. and British authorities banned liquids, including drinks, hair gels and lotions, from carry-on baggage.

"My hunch is that the reason they are prohibiting this stuff is that it does obviously have the potential of being assembled on board so that it doesn't look like a bomb going through the X-ray machine," said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Such mundane items as nail polish remover, disinfectants and hair coloring contain chemicals can be combined to make an explosion and are not detectable by "sniffing" machines, which detect plastic explosives but are not used with all baggage.

"There remains an important explosives threat that our current procedures are not geared up for carry-on baggage," added Blumstein, who was on a National Academy of Sciences committee that wrote a 1998 report on the detection of explosives for commercial aviation security.

Plastic explosives can be concealed in bottles or other innocent-looking containers that would pass through X-ray machines.

"They don't have the wherewithal to detect it unless it is connected as a bomb because it'll just look like a pile of stuff," Blumstein said.

Bombers who attacked London Underground trains and a bus in July 2005 used homemade peroxide-based explosives carried in backpacks.

An explosive chemical called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, can be put together with sulfuric acid, found in some drain cleaners, hydrogen peroxide, a medical disinfectant and hair bleach, and acetone, found in nail polish remover.

Some combinations can be set off using another chemical such as hydrochloric acid, easily carried in a small glass bottle.

One of the most notorious explosives is nitroglycerin, and the clear yellow or colorless liquid can produce an explosion sometimes with vigorous shaking. Made by carefully combining glycerol or glycerin with nitric and sulfuric acids, it is very unstable and many people have been injured or killed in trying to make or mix it.

People have tried several times to use such easily concealed explosives on aircraft. Richard Reid, a British-born follower of Saudi-born militant leader Osama bin Laden, was tackled by passengers in December 2001 while trying to detonate explosives stuffed in his shoes.

In 1994, Islamic fundamentalists detonated liquid explosives on a Japan-bound Philippine Airlines plane, killing a Japanese passenger and injuring 10 others.

Mark Ensalaco, an international terrorism expert at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said Thursday's foiled operation appeared to be identical.

"I stress identical with the explosives in liquids, which appear to be assembled on the plane," Ensalaco said in a statement.