Detecting and preventing the use of chemical weapons - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Detecting and preventing the use of chemical weapons

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RICHLAND, WA - Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Lab are helping lead international efforts in chemical forensics that will make it possible to connect weaponized chemicals to its source. Reporter Jaclyn Selesky spoke to a chemical forensic expert to talk about how they find the source.

Scientists with the chemical forensics program at PNNL are trying to determine the fingerprints or clues of chemical threat agents such as sarin, which was used in Syria last month, or other agents that are making these homemade explosives. They analyze them and find chemical signatures that could lead them to answers such as how and where they were manufactured.

Carlos Fraga is an analytical chemist at PNNL and is researching ways to detect and trace back clues from chemical attacks. He and his colleagues do so by using samples taken from the area where an alleged attack took place or where an attack was thwarted.

"Where it came from, how it was made, all of those pieces of information can help investigators find the perpetrators or facilitators of chemical attacks where these threat agents are used," said Fraga.

They're able to help authorities like the FBI connect a particular threat agent to where it may have been manufactured. They develop the techniques, the methods, and the science that is then passed along to authorities to try to pin down exactly who is behind the chemical attack, whether that be an individual or an organization.

"It becomes a part of the whole piece of evidence," Fraga said. "It's not ever going to be a smoking gun, it's going to be some circumstantial evidence with other pieces that tie and make a story together and I think that's very important because even if you say that it was made by this particular group, you can't actually say who used it."

They're discovering that even a chemical holds clues that can point to its source. They use a method called impurity profiling. Those impurities in the chemicals can tell them something about how it was made, so they can recreate it in their lab.

"So anytime you make something, there's always going to be some left over component from the agents that went in," Fraga explained. "So we've been able to do with known samples and pedigrees; either we got it from a manufacturer and we know how they made it, or we make our own precursors, for instance, and then we can see what these impurities tell us about the process."

Their goal? To be ready instead of waiting for something to happen.

"We believe that the work that we're doing can also prevent attacks. One, there's always follow-on attacks. If you look at other chemical agent attacks, there's always follow-on attacks."