United Nations weapons inspectors discovered six to eight vials of a dangerous chemical warfare agent, phosgene, as they were cleaning out offices at a U.N. building in New York, federal authorities tell the Blotter on ABCNews.com.
The federal authorities said the office, in a U.N. building near headquarters, was being evacuated and the White House had been notified at 10 a.m.
The vials were discovered at the headquarters of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), which led the inspections of possible chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. The items were recovered from a former Iraqi chemical weapons facility, Al Muthanna, back in 1996, but just noticed on an inventory list yesterday, according to UNMOVIC.
A WMD investigative team and hazmat units are responding to the incident, according to a law enforcement source.The FBI New York Field Office will be disposing of these vials.
New York police and fire officials reported to the scene around 12:15 this afternoon.
The Department of Homeland Security notified the New York City police commissioner later this morning.The United Nations said today that following the discovery of the items, "UNMOVIC chemical weapons experts sealed the packages and placed them in a safe, which was then isolated in a secured room."
Former U.N. weapons inspectors told ABCNews.com that vials of phosgene had also been used by inspectors in Iraq to help calibrate air sampling instruments.
"If it is properly sealed, it should not pose much of a threat unless it is dropped," said former New York City emergency services director Jerry Hauer, an ABC News consultant.
"They need to get it out of there and put it in a safe canister," Hauer said. "It shows immense stupidity to have that kind of thing sitting around as a souvenir."
UNMOVIC said today that normally such items would have been transported directly to a laboratory, not sent to headquarters in New York, but that now they believe the items "are properly secured and pose no immediate risk or danger to the immediate public."
According to the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control, phosgene at room temperature is a poisonous, colorless gas with a suffocating odor like newly mown hay.
According to an article in Foreign Affairs, the chemical was allegedly used by Iran in the Iran-Iraq war in 1987.
Phosgene was used extensively during World War I as a "choking agent" and, according to the CDC Web site, among the chemicals used in the war, it was responsible for the large majority of deaths.
The chemical also has numerous commercial applications in the manufacture of plastics and pesticides.
This post has been updated.