Palestinian bomb-makers have apparently found ways to make their attacks more harrowing, even without access to more powerful arms, Israeli officials say.
They say militants have been mixing various forms of rat poison into their bombs, increasing their potential for casualties — and their potential for terror.
In Tel Aviv, the alleged mastermind of the devastating suicide bombing in the seaside resort of Netanya on March 27 is not only on trial for the attack that killed 29 people and injured 140. He is also accused of planning a biochemical attack: prosecutors say he had planned to mix rat poison — in this case, cyanide — into the bomb.
Rat poison was also reportedly used in the June 17 suicide bombing at a bus stop in the annexed Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Dr. Avi Rivkind of Ein Karem Hadassah Hospital told a number of media outlets that the poison was an anti-coagulant that caused survivors to bleed uncontrollably from their wounds.
And in the July issue of the Israel Medical Association Journal, an Israeli doctor warned that survivors of suicide bombings may risk infection from blood-borne diseases.
After treating the survivors of one recent suicide bombing, Dr. Itzhak Braverman and his staff believe that flying bone fragments from the bomber infected one woman with hepatitis B. The woman was promptly treated.
"To the best of our knowledge this is the first report on human bone fragments acting as foreign bodies in a blast injury," Braverman said in his report.
An Ineffective Weapon?
While it is unclear if the bomber who was infected with hepatitis B was intentionally sent out to cause additional harm, the inclusion of rat poison in bombs would be a sign of malicious intent.
However, the effect of rat poison is apparently more psychological than physical.
Israeli officials allege rat poison was used in the Dec. 1 suicide bombing of the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, where 11 people were killed and 188 were injured, but they also said the chemicals had little effect because they were largely consumed by the blast.
Shortly after the blast, Israeli Health Ministry spokesman Ido Hadari told The Associated Press that Palestinian militants have used pesticides in four bombings since 1995 — but the substances have all been incinerated in the blasts, and no victim of a bomb has been harmed by chemicals.
Experts said it's also very difficult for most rat poisons to be used in bombs because they are seldom available in high enough concentrations to have an effect.
Most rodenticides that are commercially available in the United States are very diluted, having been mixed with food to encourage rats to eat it, said Carl Tanner of Wisconsin-based pest-control company Liphatech. "For one person to have an effect, he would have to eat pounds and pounds of this stuff," he said.
The most common rat poison in the United States is an anti-coagulant named warfarin, which is also used to treat people for blood clots and other circulatory maladies.
You would need three ounces of the rat poison to just equal the amount of warfarin available in a prescription tablet, said Dr. Richard Weisman, director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction-Poison-Bioterror Program at the University of Miami.
Moreover, Tanner said most rodenticides are designed to take effect over a period of time. "You would not see an impact for four or five days," he said.
More of a Harbinger Than a Threat
It's natural for people to fear suicide bombings even more because they might contain rat poison — but people should be even more fearful about the signal it sends, said Van Blackwood, project director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction program at the Federation of American Scientists.
For Palestinian militants to start including rat poison in their bombs, effective or not, would indicate a concerted effort to "increase the number of casualties — to kill more people," he said.
While experts said widely available rat poisons like warfarin might be ineffective, they said there are plenty of other chemicals that are more effective — but harder to get.
Antiquated rat poisons like arsenic and thallium, which cause death on a cellular level, could present a greater danger in bombs, said Weisman.
Less-widely used, but more potent rodenticides like Brodifacoum could also present a threat, Tanner said.
And chemicals that are widely available for many industrial applications, like hydrogen cyanide, could be used similarly, Blackwood said. Hydrogen cyanide was briefly tested as a chemical weapon during World War II, he said — but it was not as dangerous as nerve gas.
But for the moment, experts said suicide bombings presented enough to worry about, even without the chemicals. "I would be more concerned with nails than rat poison," Weisman said.
None of the militant groups claiming responsibility for suicide attacks have publicly responded to allegations that the devices were laced with poison.