Investigators believe that the suspects in the terrorist plot foiled Thursday planned to bring various bomb ingredients onto commercial airliners in liquid form. As a result, all but a few liquids have been banned from airplane cabins. Passengers can carry on important medicine, or milk and juice for small children, as long as they’re willing to taste those liquids in front of security staff. What would happen if a terrorist were forced to take a sip of his liquid explosives?
Very little. Bomb experts say that the “liquid bombs” might involve chemicals like nitroglycerine, nitromethane, hydrazine, ammonium nitrate, gasoline, or—most likely—the ingredients for triacetone triperoxide (also known as TATP). (The terrorists could mix these up onboard to make an ignitable explosive.) These are all nasty chemicals that you wouldn’t want to drink under normal circumstances. But if you could somehow disguise your liquid bomb ingredients as milk or juice, you could probably get away with a little gulp in front of the airport screeners.
To mix up a batch of TATP, you would need to bring three easily acquired chemicals onto a plane—acetone, hydrogen peroxide, and some kind of acid. You’d end up with visible mouth burns if you drank any of these in high concentrations, and you might give yourself away with moans of agony. (In very large doses, acetone also has a narcotic effect, and hydrogen peroxide can cause your bowels to rupture.) But ingesting small amounts of these ingredients in low concentrations wouldn’t give you away. Some explosives experts say you could even use lemon juice for the acid.
What if you had to swig a little nitroglycerine? You could get red in the face or faint. Nitroglycerine acts as a vasodilator to enlarge your blood vessels and lower your blood pressure. But screeners would have a hard time spotting the most likely symptoms—elevated heart rate and nausea.
Drinking gasoline would make you sick to your stomach, but it wouldn’t have any other obvious effects. A nip of nitromethane wouldn’t hurt, either, though you’d get liver and kidney damage if you drank it all the time. Manufacturers warn against ingesting ammonium nitrate, but in very mild terms: “May cause gastrointestinal discomfort.” (You’d do well to stay away from hydrazine, one of the ingredients in a nasty explosive called Astrolite—it can cause burns or severe dizziness and nausea.)
Given how easy it would be to quaff a little bomb juice, we might be better off if screeners sniffed suspicious liquids instead of making passengers taste them. Ingredients like gasoline or acetone have strong smells and could easily be distinguished from milk, for example. It’s possible that none of these tests would have done much good if the would-be terrorists had gone through with their plot: According to ABC News, they were going to hide their explosives in the false bottom of a sports drink bottle. That would have allowed them to taste the sports drink without disturbing the bomb material at all.
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Explainer thanks Elizabeth Scharman of the American Board of Applied Toxicology and the West Virginia Poison Control Center.