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The NPPD affair: the spy who dusted me.

It sounds like a pas de deux between Agent 007 and his SMERSH archenemy Rosa Kleb, but it wasn't happening in an lan Fleming novel. The United States accused the Soviet Union last week of using "potentially harmful" chemical substances to track U.S. embassy personnel in Leningard and Moscow. The United States demanded that the practice be stopped, while the Soviet Union called the charges "absurd allegations." "I am not wishing to make comment," a spokesperson at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., told SCIENCE NEWS.

According to the State Department, the tracking substance most commonly used by the USSR -- nitrophenylpentadienal (NPPD)--is an odorless, colorless powder that leaves no visible residue when it's properly applied by the Soviet secret police to, for example, the steering wheel of a diplomat's car or the doorknob of his house. If the diplomat were to meet with a Soviet dissident, the State Department says, he might unknowingly leave tiny amounts of the chemical on the dissident's clothing, hands or doorknob. Then, according to this scenario, the chemical evidence of this meeting could then be picked up by a KGB agent, who would wipe the dissident's doorknob, then bring the cloth to a laboratory for analytical tests using chromatography or a mass spectrometer.

State Department officials say that through biological screening, NPPD has been determined to be a mutagen--a substance capable of altering the genetic material in cells--and that "mutagens can be, but are not always, carcinogens in human beings." The State Department also says that "extensive testing will be necessary to determine whether NPPD and other compounds used by the Soviets pose a threat to health, as well as to determine the extent of the embassy community's exposure to these chemicals." In addition, a special team of four federal scientists, led by Ernest McConnell of the National Institutes of health, departed for Moscow this week to conduct a thorough investigation.

But statements by U.S. officials seemed to raise many unanswered questions, such as how--and precisely when--U.S. intelligence detected the substance, the amounts they think the Soviets used and the minimum level at which it is thought to be a mutagen. The State Department refused to give out the names of the other chemicals it suspects the Soviets of using. Furthermore, only government scientists are thought to know about the properties of NPPD, and, under orders from the State Department, they're evidently keeping their information a secret.

Though U.S. intelligence had known of Russian tracking agents in the 1970s, State Department spokesperson Peter Martinez told SCIENCE NEWS, "we did not feel it was necessary to report our information to the embassy staff because the amounts were 'minute and sporadic.'" But recently, he says, "the greater amounts and more frequent usage" detected by intelligence experts had prompted an investigation. Martinez declines to elaborate on how these varying levels had been detected, but, he says, "I am sure that over the years scientists and health experts have been involved in analyzing the suff."

U.S. government scientists synthesized the chemical themselves in order to test its health effects, according to State Department spokesperson Charles Redman. The chemical's mutagenicity was determined with the Ames bioassay test, he says.

"If this is correct, Bruce Ames, the test's inventor, told SCIENCE NEWS, "I would interpret it as being a potential carcinogen, though not every mutagen in our test is a carcinogen in rodents....Even if NPPD is a carcinogen, the risk is likely to be very small given the exposure." Ames, at the University of California at Berkeley, says he doesn't know what government laboratory had administered his test.

Only eight references to NPPD exist in the scientific literature, according to American Chemical Society spokesperson Peter Andrews, and of these, six are Soviet and two are Australian. None of them, he says, are papers about forensic uses.
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Title Annotation:U.S. accuses Soviets of using chemical substances to track embassy personnel
Author:Mathewson, Judith
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 31, 1985
Words:643
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