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Pharmacy Products Could Be on Bomb Makers' Shopping Lists

Kate Traynor

Chapter 2 of an online version of The Terrorist's Handbook begins: "Almost any city or town of reasonable size has a gun store and a pharmacy. These are two of the places that potential terrorists visit in order to purchase explosive material."

A Web site with a recipe for "black powder" says to use "only pure, fresh chemicals from reliable sources (like a pharmacy)."

Instructions for creating explosive devices are widely available on the Internet, despite attempts by legislators to remove such information from the public domain. And a common instruction at Web sites that provide recipes for explosives is to purchase critical components at a pharmacy—a fact of which pharmacists may not be aware.

A 1998 report from the National Research Council lists 28 chemicals likely to be used in making a bomb. About half of these items are described in The United States Pharmacopoeia and The National Formulary and could be found in pharmacies. Chemicals cited in the report include picric acid, potassium nitrate, sodium nitrite, potassium permanganate, glycerine, and concentrated hydrochloric or nitric acid.

Federal law regulates the sale and transport of explosives and potentially explosive materials in the United States. Finished pharmaceutical products that contain potentially explosive materials are exempt from such regulation, but the raw chemicals are not, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Pharmacists who sell explosives to people who are likely to injure themselves or others can be sued for doing so. A 1996 Connecticut Superior Court case, Wendt v. Balletto, held that a pharmacist was negligent for selling potassium chlorate to a 14-year-old boy, who used the chemical to make bombs and grenades.

But chemicals that can be used to make bombs may also have benign uses, as David R. Work, J.D., executive director of the North Carolina Board of Pharmacy, recently discovered.

Work said he heard that a pharmacy in Raliegh had been visited in late September by "several suspicious-looking men" who wanted to purchase potassium permanganate. The men appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent and were also buying rubber gloves. The pharmacist, sensing that something was amiss, reported the incident to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

But, Work said, the FBI inquiry revealed that the men had not sought the chemical as a bomb component.

"These people had an Oriental rug business, and they were using the potassium permanganate as . . . [a] purple dye." Work said. "They were using it to restore some Oriental rugs by making the colors more vivid. It's a perfectly legitimate use."

Although the report was a false alarm, Work said the incident was a great reminder of a part of pharmacy practice that people in the profession may not consider.

"Pharmacists now are concerned about drug interactions and patient counseling and third-party payments," he said. "But [pharmacists] don’t go back and think that some of these things they’re handling can do a pretty good job at creating explosions."

Work stressed something else the recent incident taught him: "I think it's good to point out that there are legitimate uses for this stuff—and [by] people who are from the Middle East."