UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday ordered an investigation into the discovery of a potentially hazardous Iraqi chemical warfare agent stored at a U.N. office in New York City.
The inquiry will examine the circumstances under which the substances were brought to U.N. headquarters from Iraq in 1996, the reasons why the discovery was only made in 2007, and safety procedures at headquarters and in the field, said a statement from Ban’s spokesperson.
“The secretary-general takes very seriously the late discovery ... of potentially hazardous material at the UNMOVIC office in New York,” the statement said. “He has given immediate instructions to launch an internal investigation drawing on external expertise in close cooperation with the U.S. and New York City authorities.”
U.N. weapons inspectors discovered the material — identified in U.N. inventory files as phosgene, a chemical substance used in World War I weapons — on Aug. 24 while going through items to be archived because their agency is shutting down its operation.
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. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, called UNMOVIC.
U.N. and U.S. officials said the material posed no threat to anyone’s health or safety.
“All necessary safety measures continue to be taken,” the U.N. statement said.
Brian Mullady, a senior UNMOVIC official, told reporters that the staff did an immediate sweep of the rest of its archives after finding the material to see if there were any more “surprises,” but there were none.
A team of hazardous materials experts from the FBI and the New York City police went to the office on Manhattan’s east side, about a block north of U.N. headquarters, on Thursday and removed the materials in three steel containers. The containers were taken to a nearby heliport by van and flown to a military facility in Aberdeen, Maryland, for analysis and disposal, U.N. officials said.
U.N. and U.S. officials said the chemical material should have been sent to a laboratory — not to a U.N. office.
‘A lot of red-faced people’
“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,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the U.N. needs to be more careful than anyone else because “it’s a target.”
“The fact that a container of deadly poison from Iraq was found at the U.N. is a wake-up call that they better start living up to the higher safety standards of a post 9/11 New York,” he said in a statement.
Buchanan said U.N. inspectors and the archives — including the suspect material — had been at U.N. headquarters until UNMOVIC moved to its current site about three years ago.
Phosgene was used extensively in World War I — as a choking agent. Both phosgene gas and liquid can damage the nose, throat, lungs, skin and eyes.
Buchanan said the suspected phosgene was in liquid form, suspended in oil, and stored in a soda-can-sized metal container that was sealed in a plastic bag.
Phosgene is “toxic,” said U.N. chemical weapons expert Svetlana Utkina. “It affects your lungs. Your lungs will collapse immediately if you inhale this substance.”
A container the “size of a Coca-Cola ... cannot contain more than gram quantities,” she said. If it was opened and did contain phosgene “probably about five people will get severe problems, (and a) couple of people will be dead.”
A second package found
Also found at the UNMOVIC office was a second sealed package containing tiny samples of chemical agents in sealed glass tubes shaped like pens that calibrate 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.
The inventory 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 is the outgrowth of a U.N. inspections process created after the 1991 Gulf War in which a U.S.-led coalition force ousted invading Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Under terms of the cease-fire, Iraq agreed to dismantle its unconventional weapons programs and long-range missiles.
In the 1990s, U.N. inspectors uncovered significant undeclared banned biological and chemical weapons programs.
U.N. inspectors from UNMOVIC’s predecessor agency, UNSCOM, 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.
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