The worst powders in the world: armed powders


Powders and bulk solids are used in almost every industry and product category on Earth. Some of these products bring us comfort (think Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa Mix) and others bring joy, like the bright orange hues of the powdered cheese that comes in the blue boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese. There are nourishing powders, such as protein powders and meal replacements like Soylent, and ailment relief, like foot powder and vitamin C drink mixes.

But during the history of mankind there are also a number of powdered products that have been developed which inadvertently or consciously cause negative effects or emotions. Scientists and engineers have turned to powders in times of war and conflict, often with devastating results. Some powdered products entered the market and were later found to be extremely harmful. Many illicit drugs come in powder form.

While Powder and Bulk Solids Usually focusing on positive innovations in the powder and bulk solids industry, this article explores some of the worst powder products in the world that were developed for use on the battlefield or in covert missions.

Reinforced powders

Gunpowder has been used in human conflict for centuries, but the product is not inherently “bad” as it has a variety of uses outside of war, including sports, hunting, fireworks, and more. even in the “engines” of model rockets.

However, there are certain powders developed as weapons that offer little positive value to society, from chemical weapons to substances used in covert assassinations or terrorist attacks.

During World War II, the United Kingdom’s intelligence service, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), developed an itchy powder made from seeds enriched with the Mucuna plant that was intended to demoralize German sailors by causing them extremely uncomfortable, explained author Fredric Boyce in “SOE’s Ultimate Disappointment.

Contraband agents SOE scratching powder in enemy territory in packages of foot powder, according to a BBC report. The instructions told users that “the greatest effect is produced by applying the powder to the inside of the underwear.”

In 1943, the SOE informed Prime Minister Winston Churchill that officers had successfully used itching powder on clothing affecting “the most sensitive parts of the human anatomy” of some 25,000 German sailors, according to a report. Guardian article.

It is not known how successful these efforts were, but Boyce’s book notes that an intelligence report said at least one submarine had to return to port due to the effects of the gunpowder.

Image courtesy of reminiscencerestore on Flickr

British intelligence agents tormented the crews of German submarines, like the one pictured here, with a powerful itchy powder.

The US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), developed an edible explosive powder during the war they dubbed “Aunt Jemima” after the popular pancake mix.

Mix 25% wheat flour with 75% RDX, an experimental explosive created by Allied researchers, “Aunt Jemima” could be used to make explosive bread and other baked goods, detailed Ian Dear in “Sabotage and subversion: the SOE and the OSS at war”. Besides, raw dough could also be molded into shapes and used as an explosive.

To ensure that the product could be successfully smuggled into enemy territory, scientists made the explosive cooking mixture edible. Some 15 tons of gunpowder were reportedly sent to Chinese resistance groups during the war for use against the Japanese occupation forces.

Easy to conceal, hard to detect

The natural bacteria Anthrax has been used as a biological weapon for about a century because the spores can be made in the lab and are easily concealed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2001, 22 Americans were infected with the infectious disease after receiving anonymous letters containing anthrax powder. Five of the recipients have died.

“Anthrax is a good weapon because it can be released discreetly and without anyone knowing. The microscopic spores could be put in powders, sprays, food and water, ”the CDC wrote in a primer on anthrax attacks. “Because they are so small, you may not be able to see, smell or taste them.”

One measure to counter the militarization of the bacteria was the development of an anthrax vaccine in early 20e century. Since the letter incident at the dawn of the millennium, federal agencies have worked to plan and prepare for a similar attack in the future.

Image courtesy of the US Navy47625137462_c9a5b48771_c.jpg

A sailor receives an anthrax vaccine aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

The poison Ricin is a white powder obtained by transforming the waste from the production of castor oil into a powder or granule. Inhalation or ingestion of the product can be fatal within 36 to 72 hours. No antidote currently exists.

“It would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people. Unintentional exposure to ricin is highly unlikely, except through ingestion of castor seeds, ”says a CDC website page on the substance.

In 1978, a Bulgarian dissident working as a journalist for the BBC died of castor oil poisoning after someone stabbed his leg with the end of an umbrella on a London street. A Scotland Yard investigation found that the tip of the umbrella had inserted a metal pellet containing a fifth of a milligram of castor oil, PBS reported in an article on the incident.

Ricin has been used in a number of assassinations over the decades. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the Iraqi military reportedly implemented a program to create weapons from this substance. Castor bean letters to American politicians and media figures have been intercepted over the years.

Spies educated in handling powder

Spy agencies around the world have developed and used armed powders because they are easy to transport, conceal, and deliver to a target. The use of powders in covert operations was apparently so ubiquitous during the Cold War that the CIA included a chapter titled “Handling Powders” in “Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception,” a training manual published by the CIA. agency in the 1950s.

“Bulk materials, in the form of salt, can only be handled when they are in a certain type of container,” the manual says. “The container must have three prerequisites: 1. The container must safely contain the bulk material without the possibility of loss of quantity. 2. It must be constructed in such a way that the material can be released instantly. 3. It must not appear like a container and it must have a common use that makes it an object that anyone could wear.

Image courtesy of Pixabaypencil-1037609_1920.jpg

A 1950s CIA manual taught officers how to dig the tip of a pencil to hide an amount of powder behind the eraser.

Officers were told three different ways to hollow out the end of a pencil to hold a grain half a teaspoon of powder behind the eraser. The chapter also contained several “tips” for discreetly removing gum and throwing powder into a target’s drink.

The worst powder products in the world

The militarized powders described above offer few redemptive attributes. Although they have been used for something in the realm of war or espionage before, we hope they never reappear.

This article is part of an ongoing series. Check back to to learn more about some of the world’s worst powder products across a wide range of industries.

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