Embassy Prepares Spy Dust Testing
MOSCOW (AP) _ A U.S. medical team briefed Americans in Moscow Thursday on U.S. Embassy plans to test for a chemical the State Department has said the Soviets use to track Americans.
The officials did not emphasize any dangers of cancer or gene mutation from the chemical. They said the tests would be voluntary, and indicated that test subjects would be asked not to divulge information.
The chemical is nitrophenylpentadienal, called NPPD. It is little-known and expensive to detect. The department said in Washington last week that the Soviets have used NPPD to track diplomats by dusting articles in their homes and commonly touched parts of their automobiles.
The Soviet Union has vigorously denied the claims, and the Soviet Embassy in Washington lodged a protest about them with the State Department.
Dr. Ernest McConnell, head of a four-member medical team that will be in Moscow for up to two weeks, said at a briefing for Americans that tests would focus on whether NPPD is absorbed through the skin and in what form.
Two briefings were held Thursday, one for diplomatic staff and the other for non-diplomat Americans such as business representatives and reporters. About 500 Americans live in Moscow, although the embassy has said it has no exact figure.
McConnell said that in its natural form NPPD is mutagenic, meaning it can alter cell structure. In humans, mutagens can be carcinogenic but are not always, he said. If NPPD is absorbed in an unaltered form, it could be mutagenic, McConnell said.
He played down these dangers, however, saying NPPD is ″highly reactive″ and not likely to be absorbed without changes. If absorbed, McConnell said, it probably is altered into other compounds not believed to be mutagenic.
McConnell said his Department of Toxicology in the National Institutes of Health is giving ″high priority, not just lip service″ to investigating NPPD.
Dr. Jeff Lybarger, asked if pregnant women or others are being advised to leave Moscow, said: ″We don’t have enough information to be able to tell them that they should change their lives in any way.″
Karen Hammerstrom, a chemical engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency, said she would collect samples of residue by wiping sterile gauze on flat surfaces and door handles of homes and cars. The gauze will be sealed in tubes and taken to Washington for analysis. Results would be known within two months.
The team said it might take whole items such as articles of clothing to Washington for analysis. Scientists are able to detect NPPD only with a mass spectrometer, an expensive laboratory device that could not be transported to Moscow.
Combs and McConnell said the chances were good that the Soviets have by now removed the chemical from surfaces to which it was applied. Hammerstrom said U.S. scientists are trying to determine if NPPD can be removed by detergents or processes like vacuuming.
In Washington, Rep. Dan Mica, D-Fla., said the State Department had told him it was possible that Soviet personnel had used the chemical at least once in the United States.
″There are indications it has been used outside Moscow, in the United States,″ Mica said. ″I have been told there is one highly possible use in the United States.″
Mica told a news conference he was not given details of where, when or why the chemical may have been used. He said there was no evidence any U.S. agency had ever used it.
The United States assumed British and West Germany diplomats may have come in contact with the chemical, Mica said, and was giving information on it to those nations. Asked if other embassies were involved, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said: ″I can’t confirm that at this time.″
Mica said U.S. officials discovered this spring that the Soviets were using the chemical in Moscow because the Soviets ″made a mistake″ and applied so much of it at one unspecified site that the powder became visible.