Arrest made in Canada over osmium tetroxide stores and other chemicals that triggered evacuation of nearby homes

Hannes Hiller, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Osmium tetroxide is highly poisonous and can cause death if inhaled

An American opthamologist, who reportedly worked with chemical weapons during his former stint with the US Navy, was arrested in Ottawa, Canada, on 21 January for stockpiling dangerous chemicals, including osmium tetroxide, and threatening police.

The incident involving Christopher Phillips prompted the temporary evacuation of a hotel in Ottawa where he was staying. This led to the evacuation of several homes adjacent to Phillips’ home in Grand Desert, Nova Scotia.

Phillips had apparently stockpiled and stored many chemicals of concern, of which osmium tetroxide is the only one that authorities have thus far named.

‘Within the cottage is a variety of containers filled with chemicals stacked from floor to ceiling,’ said Roland Wells of the Halifax police. He reported that ‘extreme caution and care’ had to be used to examine the scene because many of these chemicals were unstable.

Following several days work by emergency responders and chemists to identify and safely seal or remove the chemicals in question, the evacuation order placed on homes near the cottage was lifted. Authorities are currently analysing the substances.

Phillips will next appear in court in Nova Scotia on 29 January. He is expected to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine his competence to stand trial.

‘He might have just thought that it was a good idea to use osmium tetroxide as a threat, but it is not a chemical that I would choose if I was thinking as a terrorist,’ says Manuel Aquino, an inorganic chemistry professor at St Francis Xavier University, Canada.

Although osmium tetroxide is extremely toxic if consumed or inhaled, it is a solid at room temperature and melts at very low temperatures. ‘The chemical melts on a warm day and would not disperse very readily,’ Aquino explains. In addition, he says a large quantity would be needed to cause significant harm. ‘There are many, many other cheaper chemicals that disperse much more rapidly, are much more dangerous, would be relatively easy to produce and are much cheaper.’

Richard Puddephatt, a chemistry professor at Western University, Canada, agrees. ‘Osmium tetroxide is a dangerous chemical and could certainly kill an individual, but for causing mass havoc, I don’t really see it,’ he says.

The chemical is primarily used as a catalyst to speed up certain organic chemical reactions and to prepare biological samples for electron microscopy studies. Puddephatt says it’s possible that Phillips had the osmium tetroxide for legitimate research reasons. Aquino suggests that he might have been using it as a catalyst to produce much more hazardous chemicals.

In 2004, a group of UK citizens were arrested over a bomb plot linked to the use of osmium tetroxide. The police foiled the attack by the group, which was reportedly was sympathetic to al-Qaida. ‘That was a perfect example of stupid and rich terrorists,’ Puddephatt states. ‘If you blow it up, you ruin it,’ he says, adding that it is unlikely that the chemical would be dispersed.