How easy is it to make sarin, the nerve gas that Japanese authorities believe was used to kill eight and injure thousands in the Tokyo subways during the Monday-morning rush hour?
"Wait a minute, I'll look it up," University of Toronto chemistry professor Ronald Kluger said over the phone. This was followed by the sound of pages flipping as he skimmed through the Merck Index, the bible of chemical preparations.Five seconds later, Kluger announced, "Here it is," and proceeded to read not only the chemical formula but also the references that describe the step-by-step preparation of sarin, a gas that cripples the nervous system and can kill in minutes.
"This stuff is so trivial and so open," he said of both the theory and the procedure required to make a substance so potent that less than a milligram can kill you.
Not only is the recipe readily available, but the materials are cheap. Cam Boulet, the organic chemist who makes the sarin studied by the Canadian army at Canadian Forces Base Suffield, Alberta, estimated that his production costs are between $100 and $500 a gram.
The ingredients - organophosphorus, a component of many pesticides, and rubbing alcohol - are readily available from chemical-supply companies. And even under the very strict safety precautions used at the military base, it would take Boulet no more than a couple of weeks to make 30 or 40 grams of sarin - enough to kill upwards of 75,000 people.
So why haven't terrorists been loosing on the world this nerve gas that German scientists developed before the First World War?
An instinct for self-preservation, perhaps.
"It's easy to make - and it's easy to kill yourself while doing it," Kluger said.
Because sarin is so lethal and so volatile, its manufacture requires a fully equipped laboratory.
This would include special glassware to contain the gas, a fume hood to vent any vapors that escaped and decontamination facilities. At CFB Suffield, the safety requirements also include having at least two people in the laboratory at all times, so that one could help the other in the event of an accident. Scientists say that anything the sarin touched would have to be buried. Given the lethal nature of the gas, scientists suggest that terrorists working with the material would almost have to assume that some of them would die.