Powders and bulk solid materials are used in nearly every industry and product category on Earth. Some of these products bring us comfort (think Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa mix) and others elicit joy, like the bright orange hues of the powdered cheese that comes in the blue boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese. There are powders that offer nourishment, such as protein powders and meal replacements like Soylent, and relief from ailments, like foot powder and Vitamin C drink mixes.
But over the history of humankind, there are also a number of powder products that have been developed that inadvertently or consciously cause negative effects or emotions. Scientists and engineers have turned to powders during times of war and conflict, often with devastating results. Some powder products entered the market and were later discovered to be tremendously harmful. Many illicit drugs come in a powdered form.
While Powder & Bulk Solids generally focuses on the positive innovations in the powder and bulk solids industry, this piece explores some of the world's worst powder products that were developed for use on the battlefield or in covert missions.
Gunpowder has been used in human conflicts for centuries, but the product is not inherently “bad,” as it has a variety of uses outside of warfare, including sports, hunting, fireworks, and even in the “motors” of model rockets.
However, there are certain powders developed as weapons that offer little positive value to society, from chemical weapons to substances used to clandestinely carry out assassinations or terror attacks.
During World War II, the United Kingdom’s intelligence service, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), developed an itching powder made from the Mucuna plant’s spiked seeds that was intended to demoralize German sailors by making them tremendously uncomfortable, author Fredric Boyce explained in “SOE’s Ultimate Deception.”
Agents smuggled the SOE’s itching powder into enemy territory in foot powder packaging, a BBC report said. Instructions told users that “the greatest effect is produced by applying the powder to the inside of underclothing.”
In 1943, SOE notified Prime Minister Winston Churchill that agents managed to use the itching powder on clothing touching “the more tender parts of the human anatomy” of some 25,000 German sailors, according to a Guardian article.
It is unclear how successful these efforts were, but Boyce’s book notes that one intelligence report stated that at least one U-Boat had to return to port due to the powder’s effects.
America’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) developed an edible explosive powder during the war that they dubbed “Aunt Jemima” after the popular pancake mix.
Mixing 25% wheat flour with 75% RDX, an experimental explosive created by the 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 OSS at War.” In addition, raw dough could also be molded into shapes and used as an explosive.
To ensure the product could be successfully smuggled into enemy territory, scientists made the explosive baking mix edible. Some 15 tons of the powder was reportedly sent to Chinese resistance groups during the war for use against occupying Japanese forces.
Easy to Conceal, Hard to Detect
The naturally occurring bacterium Anthrax has been used as a bioweapon for about a century because the spores can be manufactured in a lab and are easily concealed, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2001, 22 Americans became infected with the infectious disease after receiving anonymous letters laced with anthrax powder. Five of the recipients died.
“Anthrax makes a good weapon because it can be released quietly and without anyone knowing. The microscopic spores could be put into 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 weaponization of bacterium was the development of an Anthrax vaccines in the early 20th 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.
The poison Ricin is a white powder made by processing the waste products from castor oil production into a powder or pellet. Inhaling or ingesting the product can cause death 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 the ingestion of castor beans,” a CDC website page on the substance states.
In 1978, a Bulgarian dissident working as a journalist for the BBC died from Ricin poisoning after someone stabbed his leg with the end of an umbrella on a London street. An investigation by Scotland Yard revealed that the tip of the umbrella inserted a metal pellet that contained one fifth of a milligram of Ricin, 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 operated a program to create weapons from the substance. Ricin-laced letters addressed to American politicians and media figures have been intercepted over the years.
Spies Instructed in Powder Handling
Spy agencies around the world have developed and used weaponized 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 of Powders” in “Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deceptions,” a training manual published by the agency in the 1950s.
“Loose material, in salt-like form, can be handled only when it is in some type of container,” the handbook states. “The container has to have three prerequisites: 1. The container must safely hold the loose material without the possibility of loss of quantity. 2. It must be constructed so the material can be instantly released. 3. It must not appear to be a container and it must have some common use which makes it an object anyone might be expected to carry.”
Agents were instructed on three different ways to hollow out the end of a pencil to hold one grain to a half teaspoon of powder behind the eraser. The chapter also contained several “tricks” to discretely remove the eraser and dump the powder into a target's drink.
The World’s Worst Powder Products
The weaponized powders described above offer few redeeming attributes. While they have served a purpose in the field of war or in spycraft at one time, we hope they never reemerge.
This article is part of an ongoing series. Check back on PowderBulkSolids.com to learn more about some of the world’s worst powder products across a wide range of industries.