United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq archiving their headquarters in New York have discovered vials that may contain a potentially deadly chemical removed from an Iraqi facility 11 years ago, but they said today that the containers are properly secured and pose no immediate threat to the public.
The UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) said the relevant packages were being handed over to United States authorities for removal and destruction, and a spokesperson for the UN said an investigation would soon begin into how the hazardous materials came to be in the Commission’s headquarters.
Last Friday, UNMOVIC staff discovered two small plastic packages with metal and glass containers – ranging in size from small vials to tubes the length of a pen – holding unknown liquid substances, UN spokesperson Marie Okabe told reporters.
The find was made during the process of archiving UNMOVIC’s offices in New York, near the UN Headquarters building, as the Commission winds down after the Security Council terminated its mandate in June.
Ms. Okabe said an initial probe revealed that the packages were recovered in 1996 from Al Muthanna, a former Iraqi chemical weapons facility, by inspectors with the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), the predecessor of UNMOVIC.
Yesterday, however, the relevant inspection report was found, and it contained an inventory of items recovered that shows one of the items may contain phosgene suspended in oil – an old-generation chemical warfare agent.
Phosgene is a chemical weapon that was used widely in World War I, and in both its gaseous and liquid forms can be potentially life-threatening, causing the lungs to collapse and damaging the eyes, nose, throat and skin. It is also an industrial chemical that can be used in the production of plastics.
The inventory also indicated that the other package contains nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) reference standards in sealed glass tubes. These standards are used to calibrate chemical analytical equipment.
Such items would normally be transported directly to laboratories for analysis and not to UNMOVIC or UNSCOM headquarters, and the Commission said it is unaware of how the materials came to be in New York.
UNMOVIC chemical weapons experts sealed the packages and placed them in a safe that was then isolated in a secured room at the headquarters. They also tested the environment surrounding the packages and found no concentration of toxic vapours in the air.
The Commission has stated that it believes the packages are properly secured and the materials pose no immediate risk or danger to the public, while a subsequent sweep of the entire office revealed no further potentially dangerous materials.
UNMOVIC was established by the Security Council in December 1999 to replace UNSCOM and continue the work – begun in 1991 in the aftermath of the war that followed the invasion of Kuwait – of verifying Iraq’s compliance with its obligations to be rid of weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical, biological or long-range missiles. It was also tasked with ensuring that Iraq did not reacquire these weapons.