This lethal bacterial by-product disease is rather obscure as a bioterrorism agent. The name of the nasty little culprit is Clostridium botulinum. This is also a likely biological weapon because botulinum produces spores that are present in soil and marine sediment throughout the world. Botulism is more difficult to handle in a weapons laboratory because it is anaerobic (it can only thrive in an airless environment).
The most common form of disease in adults is foodborne botulism. Food substances become contaminated and vacuum-packed during manufacturing. The airless environment in cans and bottles allows the culture to grow. Additionally, terrorists have been able to produce large amounts of spores that they could spray into the air and infect people who inhale that air.
Regarding symptoms, the foodborne disease begins with vomiting and diarrhea, and the inhalation form starts with respiratory congestion and coughing. Once a person inhales or ingests the contaminant, the bacterium releases a neurotoxin that causes the following symptoms:
- drooping eyelids
- sagging jaw
- difficulty swallowing
- slurred speech
- blurred vision
- progressive paralysis with the arms first, then the respiratory muscles, and finally the legs
- respiratory failure from muscle paralysis and upper airway obstruction due to the tongue falling backward
This is a horrific condition because there is no loss of sensation or consciousness as the victim slowly suffocates. The listed neurological symptoms begin twelve to thirty-six hours after ingestion and twenty-four to seventy-two hours after inhalation. Therefore, an aerosol attack with botulism spores is likely to result in a much higher death rate than with anthrax.