Possibly harmful chemicals discovered in U.N. office

By Edith M. Lederer

UNITED NATIONS – U.N. weapons inspectors discovered a potentially hazardous chemical warfare agent that was taken from an Iraqi chemical weapons facility 11 years ago and mistakenly stored in their offices in the heart of midtown Manhattan all that time, officials said Thursday.

The material, identified in inventory files as phosgene – a chemical substance used in World War I weapons – was discovered Aug. 24. It was only identified on Wednesday because it was marked simply with an inventory number and officials had to check the many records in their vast archives, said Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for the U.N. inspection agency.

A team of hazardous materials experts from the FBI and the New York City Police Department went to the office on Manhattan’s east side, about a block north of U.N. headquarters, on Thursday with two steel containers to remove the materials and take them to a military facility outside New York for disposal, officials said.

While the disposal team was in the office of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC, its small staff was evacuated along with other tenants from that floor, Buchanan said.

When the material was discovered in a shipping container last week, Buchanan said U.N. experts followed their established procedure in dealing with unknown material – putting the material in double zip-locked plastic bags and securing it in a safe in a room that is double-locked.

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    U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said there was no danger to the public and staff continued to work in offices of UNMOVIC, which are in the process of being shut down. The U.N. called in U.S. authorities to remove the material, she said.

    Tests conducted by U.N. personnel found no toxic vapors in the area where the material has been stored, police said. The materials have apparently been in UNMOVIC since 1996, when they were inadvertently shipped to United Nations administrative offices, instead of a chemical laboratory, police said.

    White House spokesman Tony Snow said the chemical agents should have been transported to an appropriately equipped lab for analysis.

    “I’m sure that there are going to be a lot of red-faced people over at the U.N. trying to figure out how they got there,” Snow said.

    Phosgene can be used as a chemical weapon – and was used extensively in World War I – as a choking agent. Both phosgene gas and liquid can damage skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

    Okabe said the chemical state of the phosgene was unknown but “could be potentially hazardous.”

    Buchanan said the phosgene was in liquid form, suspended in oil, in a soda-can-sized container that was sealed in a plastic bag.

    Records indicated the material was from a 1996 excavation of the bombed-out research and development building at Iraq’s main chemical weapons facility at Muthana, near Samarra. The entire facility was extensively bombed during the 1991 Gulf War, Buchanan said.

    UNMOVIC has 1,400 linear feet of paper files and it took until Wednesday to find the inventory matching the number on the package of phosgene.

    Also found at the UNMOVIC office was a second sealed package containing tiny samples of chemical agents used for calibrating analytical equipment, which inspectors use to identify chemical agents, Buchanan said. Each of these reference standards contained less than a gram of chemical material, he added.

    Okabe said the United Nations has launched an investigation to determine how and why the material was in UNMOVIC files. The Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were informed, Okabe added.

    The State Department said it had learned of the discovery late Wednesday and had immediately contacted the FBI to deal with the disposal.

    Deputy spokesman Tom Casey also said a joint U.S.-U.N. investigation would be made into why the samples had been stored in the office but stressed that the chemicals had been there for at least a decade and did not pose any health risk.

    “One of the things we want to do is make sure that the U.N., working with the FBI, does conduct a full investigation of this, so we’re absolutely certain how they in fact got there, how long they were there, and the kind of exact nature of how this came about,” he told reporters.

    “There is no threat that these items currently or in the past have posed to public health and safety in the area,” Casey said.

    U.N. inspectors pulled out of Iraq just before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion and were barred by the U.S. from returning. The U.S. and Britain said they were taking over responsibility for Iraq’s disarmament. In June 2003, the Security Council voted to shut down UNMOVIC and the U.N. nuclear inspection operation in Iraq.

    Associated Press Writer Tom Hays contributed to this story from New York