Trichothecene mycotoxins are a group of more than 40 compounds found in common grain mold. One of these compounds, T-2 mycotoxin, can be extremely toxic to humans and animals. The toxin inhibits production of protein and nucleic acid and is several hundred times more potent than mustards or lewisite. The toxin further produces low white blood cell count as well as bone marrow atrophy.
Trichothecene mycotoxins do not dissolve in water, but is soluble in ethanol, methanol, and propylene glycol. Trichothecene toxins are known for their stability and cannot be deactivated by heat below 500 degrees Fahrenheit or ultraviolet light. The toxins can be mixed with closely related compounds and other biological agents. To weaponize trichothecene mycotoxins is relatively easy and inexpensive. The production of trichothecene mycotoxins occurs through a fermentation process similar to brewing and the production of antibiotic. 3 to 5-percent hypochlorite solutions can inactive trichothecene mycotoxins.
In a biological attack, trichothecene mycotoxins can be inhaled, ingested, or acquired through contact with the skin and eyes. Dermal exposure leads to burning pain, redness, and blisters, and oral exposure leads to vomiting and diarrhea. Ocular exposure might result in blurred vision, and inhalational exposure might cause nasal irritation and cough. Systemic symptoms can develop with all routes of exposure and might include weakness, ataxia, hypotension, coagulopathy, and death.
In airborne form, Trichothecene mycotoxins can be dispersed through the air or mixed in food or beverages. In addition to airborne delivery of the toxin, it can also be delivered by mortars, artillery, free rockets, and aerial bombs. Trichothecene mycotoxins cannot be transmitted from person-to-person, and accidental exposures to large enough quantities of trichothecene mycotoxins to cause symptoms are rare. Weaponized trichothecene mycotoxins will most likely appear in the form of an oily liquid with a peppery smell that resembles yellow rain. Once released, the toxin disperses quickly into the air.
History of Trichothecene Mycotoxins as a Biological Weapon
Trichothecene mycotoxins was believed to have been accidentally discovered by the Soviet military during World War II when thousands of Soviet civilians began to suffer from alimentary toxic aleukia, a highly lethal disease with symptoms that resembled radiation poisoning. The civilians had eaten bread baked from flour contaminated with fusarium mold. The fusarium mold developed on the wheat when it was left in fields all winter. In addition to ingestion, inhalation of the mold through contaminated hay, dust, and even ventilation systems also led to poisoning.
Between 1974 and 1981, evidence suggested that the Soviet Union developed complex delivery systems for trichothecene mycotoxins including aircraft spray tanks, aircraft-launched rockets, bombs (exploding cylinder), canisters, a Soviet hand-held weapon (DH-10), and booby traps. Aircrafts used to deliver the toxin included L-19s, AN-2s, T-28s, T-41s, MiG-21s and Soviet MI-24 helicopters. Soviet client states also reportedly used these sophisticated delivery systems.
Circumstantial evidence suggested that in 1974, the communist government of Laos began to attack the Lao tribal people with helicopters that distributed dust, colored smoke, and liquid droplets. Similar attacks were reported in Afghanistan and Cambodia. In Cambodia, it was reported that North Vietnamese troops used 60 mm mortar shells, 120 mm shells, 107 mm rockets, M-79 grenade launches and T-28 aircrafts against Khmer troops. Symptoms included vomiting, dizziness, seizures, and respiratory malaise, and survivors would continue to suffer from joint pains, memory loss, and rashes. At first, all involved were puzzled by the unknown toxin until examinations linked the symptoms and autopsy results to the possible use of trichothecene mycotoxins. Information from Chinese analysts suggests that between 1975 and 1982, roughly 6,000 Laotians; 1,000 Cambodians; and 3,000 Afghans died from trichothecene mycotoxin attacks. These attacks became known as "yellow rain" since the sticky liquid that fell from the sky sounded like rain.
Scientists have challenged charges the trichothecene mycotoxins were used in Southeast Asia. These experts suggested that bee feces caused the yellow coloration attributed to "yellow rain," and that only 10% of the samples returned positive for trichothecene. However, 32% of the victims' samples returned positive- too high for natural rates. Others speculated that samples were purposefully contaminated. The Soviets never affirmed that they stockpiled trichothecene mycotoxins as biological weapons, but at the same time, the Russians have not denied the use of trichothecene mycotoxins.
The Iraqi biological weapons program produced trichothecene mycotoxins as a biological agent. During the Iran-Iraq War in the Majoon Island theater of conflict, Iraqi forces dispersed smoke and powder against Iranian forces. Professor Aubin Heyndrickx from the University of Ghent argued that T-2 was one of the chemicals discovered in Iranian casualties, and because tissues have degraded the toxins over time, scientists cannot currently find traces of the toxin in Iranian remains. Unconfirmed reports also suggested that in 1964, Egyptian or Russian forces used T-2 with mustard gas against Yemeni Royalists.
Reports from Canadian and Dutch scientists suggested that Iranian representatives have approached them for information about acquiring fungi that produces mycotoxins.
In addition, Cuba was also suspected to have been equipped with T-2 poisons.
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