Stinks And Booms

This is a very sad story, actually. I grew up when home chemistry sets were not only available, but had many, many ingredients that could be used to do all sorts of neat things. Like stinks and booms. Which my friends and I created on a fairly regular basis.

The first startling thing Joy White saw out of her bedroom window was a man running toward her door with an M16. White’s husband, a physicist named Bob Lazar, was already outside, awakened by their barking dogs. Suddenly police officers and men in camouflage swarmed up the path, hoisting a battering ram. “Come out with your hands up immediately, Miss White!” one of them yelled through a megaphone, while another handcuffed the physicist in his underwear. Recalling that June morning in 2003, Lazar says, “If they were expecting to find Osama bin Laden, they brought along enough guys.”

The target of this operation, which involved more than two dozen police officers and federal agents, was not an international terrorist ring but the couple’s home business, United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, a mail-order outfit that serves amateur scientists, students, teachers, and law enforcement professionals. From the outside, company headquarters – at the end of a dirt road high in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque – looks like any other ranch house in New Mexico, with three dogs, a barbecue, and an SUV in the driveway. But not every suburban household boasts its own particle accelerator. A stroll through the backyard reveals what looks like a giant Van de Graaff generator with a pipe spiraling out of it, marked with CAUTION: RADIATION signs. A sticker on the SUV reads POWERED BY HYDROGEN, while another sign by the front gate warns, TRESPASSERS WILL BE USED FOR SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS.

Science experiments are United Nuclear’s business. The chemicals available on the company’s Web site range from ammonium dichromate (the main ingredient in the classic science-fair volcano) to zinc oxide powder (which absorbs UV light). Lazar and White also sell elements like sodium and mercury, radioactive minerals, and geeky curiosities like aerogel, an ultralightweight foam developed by NASA to capture comet dust. The Department of Homeland Security buys the company’s powerful infrared flashlights by the case; the Mythbusters guys on the Discovery Channel recently picked up 10 superstrong neodymium magnets. (These come with the sobering caveat: “Beware – you must think ahead when moving these magnets … Loose metallic objects and other magnets may become airborne and fly considerable distances.”) Fire departments in Nevada and California send for United Nuclear’s Geiger counters and uranium ore to train hazmat crews.

A former employee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the 47-year-old Lazar radiates a boyish enthusiasm for science and gadgets. White, 50, is a trim licensed aesthetician who does herbal facials for local housewives while helping her husband run the company. When the officers determined that Lazar and White posed no physical threat, they freed the couple from their handcuffs and produced a search warrant. United Nuclear’s computers and business records were carted off in a van.

The search was initiated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency best known for instigating recalls of faulty cribs and fire-prone space heaters. The CPSC’s concern with United Nuclear was not the uranium, the magnets, or the backyard accelerator. It was the chemicals – specifically sulfur, potassium perchlorate, and powdered aluminum, all of which can be used to make illegal fireworks. The agency suspected that Lazar and White were selling what amounted to kits for making M-80s, cherry bombs, and other prohibited items; such kits are banned by the CPSC under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.

“We are not just a recall agency,” explains CPSC spokesperson Scott Wolfson. “We have turned our attention to the chemical components used in the manufacture of illegal fireworks, which can cause amputations and death.” A 2004 study by the agency found that 2 percent of fireworks-related injuries that year were caused by homemade or altered fireworks; the majority involved the mishandling of commercial firecrackers, bottle rockets, and sparklers. Nonetheless, Wolfson says, “we’ve fostered a very close relationship with the Justice Department and we’re out there on the Internet looking to see who is promoting these core chemicals. Fireworks is one area where we’re putting people in prison.”

There is a concerted effort to take chemistry out of the hands of amateurs and effectively ban any and all products that someone has determined to be "dangerous". Never mind that you have legal, over the counter stuff under your kitchen sink that is much more lethal.

A provision in the 2002 Homeland Security Act mandated background checks and licensing requirements for model-rocket enthusiasts on the grounds that ammonium perchlorate fuel is an explosive; the Justice Department argued that terrorists could deploy model rockets to shoot down commercial airliners. A bill pending in both houses of Congress would empower the Department of Homeland Security to regulate sales of ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer that Timothy McVeigh used to make the Oklahoma City bomb. “We finally have bipartisan support and encouragement from the chemical industry on this, which is important, because we’ve seen what can happen when these materials fall into the wrong hands,” says US representative Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania), who is sponsoring the House bill. “As we move forward, we’re going to be taking a very close look at other chemicals that should be regulated.”

In the meantime, more than 30 states have passed laws to restrict sales of chemicals and lab equipment associated with meth production, which has resulted in a decline in domestic meth labs, but makes things daunting for an amateur chemist shopping for supplies. It is illegal in Texas, for example, to buy such basic labware as Erlenmeyer flasks or three-necked beakers without first registering with the state’s Department of Public Safety to declare that they will not be used to make drugs. Among the chemicals the Portland, Oregon, police department lists online as “commonly associated with meth labs” are such scientifically useful compounds as liquid iodine, isopropyl alcohol, sulfuric acid, and hydrogen peroxide, along with chemistry glassware and pH strips. Similar lists appear on hundreds of Web sites.

“To criminalize the necessary materials of discovery is one of the worst things you can do in a free society,” says Shawn Carlson, a 1999 MacArthur fellow and founder of the Society for Amateur Scientists. “The Mr. Coffee machine that every Texas legislator has near his desk has three violations of the law built into it: a filter funnel, a Pyrex beaker, and a heating element. The laws against meth should be the deterrent to making it – not criminalizing activities that train young people to appreciate science.”

We may all pay for this over zealous policy in the future. As it becomes more difficult to perform experiments, it will likely lead to a decline in the number of people entering the sciences.

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One Response to Stinks And Booms

  1. Roland Hesz says:

    What I don’t get is that a lot of governmental bodies bought stuff from them, so the company must had licences to retail, sell, store, whatever they have to do with these chemicals.

    So what was it all about? Is there a competitor?

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