LONDON – A chemical firm alerted authorities to a potential terrorist plot after a London-based group tried to buy half a ton of a toxic substance, a company spokesman said Saturday.
Amersham Biosciences grew suspicious when it received an order for 1,100 lbs of saponin in the fall of 2002, said the company’s business development director, Lennart Arlinger.
Saponin enhances the transmission of molecules through biological cell membranes. When combined with a potent toxin such as ricin, it can ease the absorption of the poison through the skin, experts say.
Arlinger told The Associated Press that the large size of the order, which came from London, raised the company’s suspicions, and that research showed the group trying to buy the goods had Islamic links. Amersham stopped the order and informed national authorities in Sweden, where the order was processed.
London’s Metropolitan Police would not comment.
Arlinger said the company made it policy to “proactively consider the potential risk of misuse” of its products, “asking ourselves when peculiar orders are placed with us whether we actually should allow them to be delivered.”
Saponins, which can be toxic in high doses, are a family of natural detergents derived from plants with a variety of uses in industry and medicine. Digitalis, which is used to treat heart disease, is a saponin derived from the foxglove plant.
Early this year, several men were arrested and accused of plotting to produce a chemical weapon after police discovered traces of ricin — a highly toxic poison extracted from castor beans — in a north London apartment