Imagine that in the course of an investigation, law enforcement officers suspect the presence of a clandestine laboratory processing illicit drugs. Upon the execution of a search warrant, these officers discover a clandestine laboratory hidden in the basement, full of bottles and containers with chemicals. For personal and public safety, as well as potential criminal prosecution, the officers must be able to identify both the illicit substances and all substances used to make them. For officers who likely are not chemists, how can they do this quickly and safely? What if they could enter the list of chemicals in a search engine or a special database and discover that these chemicals are the reagents or ingredients for the production of a toxic gas?
Scenarios such as these occur daily and demonstrate the importance of access to reliable chemical information for solving crimes and preventing violence. You will be glad to know that illicit chemistry information already exists and is readily available to law enforcement personnel even if they are on the scene! The Chemical Agents Reactions Database (CARD) was developed by expert chemists from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) Chemical Security Analysis Center (CSAC). The latest version of CARD was released in late March.
“CARD is a centralized location of chemical information for threat materials that can be used simultaneously from multiple locations,” said Dr. David Morton, Senior Chemist at CSAC, who leads the CARD project. “CARD is one of the tools for assisting federal law enforcement with interdiction, prosecution, and reduction of drug proliferation, including law enforcement like the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Secret Service.”
What is CARD and how does it work?
CARD, a chemical synthesis and chemical informatics centric data system (e.g. boiling point, melting point, toxicity, or spectroscopic information) containing both unclassified and classified data, is accessible from a classified website maintained on a server hosted by the Department of Defense. The website is available to appropriately cleared personnel from DHS, Department of Justice (e.g. FBI), other United States Government interagency offices, and state and local agencies, and provides information on how chemicals of interest could be produced.
“There is a detailed description of how each chemical is prepared to include information relevant to each step, the reagents and reactants that are needed and the conditions necessary for the reactions to take place, such as time, temperature, mixing—like a recipe,” said Morton. “If law enforcement were to discover a table full of labeled chemicals in a clandestine laboratory, they would put these names as a list in CARD to find out what the suspects are making – illicit drugs, poisons, or warfare agents.”
Also, CARD can be used the other way around. If police find an illicit drug or a warfare agent, they can search in the website to see what chemicals can be used to make it. For example, if police capture a suspect with a vial of sarin gas (a nerve agent that can kill in minutes after inhalation), they can use CARD to determine which chemicals are used to make it. Police can then search the suspect’s illicit lab for those chemicals and obtain further evidence of wrongdoing.
“Thiodiglycol can be used to make mustard gas. So, if I saw someone with a lot of this, I might be concerned,” Morton said. “CARD is an important tool to provide law enforcement with clues for different types of illegal activity for either possessing an illegal chemical or for actively making a lot of it.”
CARD also shows the molecular structure of chemicals, the ways they are produced and used, and their physical, chemical, and toxicological properties.
The database is continuously growing. Currently, CARD contains approximately 1,000 chemicals of interest and 5,000 reagent chemicals used in the chemical reactions that produce illicit chemicals. These chemical reactions are supported in CARD by peer review journal articles.
CARD is used on a daily basis by different federal agencies. For example, CBP has been using it for tracking important chemicals coming into the U.S. from countries of interest.
“Users are very important for the continuous growth and improvement of CARD as they provide feedback and suggest more chemicals of interest to be added,” Morton said.
Among CARD’s key features are its more than 2,000 chemical synthetic methods (gathered from the military, government and industry) for the synthesis and decomposition of the chemicals of interest. Synthesis is how a chemical is made, and decomposition is the breakdown of a chemical during decontamination and cleaning of a contaminated area. Another feature is chemical specific information on acute toxicity. This is important to inform responders and law enforcement of the health consequences after human or animal exposure. Toxicity information is complemented with corresponding medical countermeasures, which uses data from CSAC’s Chemical Risk Assessments. In CARD, the physiochemical properties—14 unique properties per chemical including melting point, boiling point, heat vaporization, density, solubility in water and more—are available for several hundred chemicals of interest and more are being added. Chemical compounds can be searched by chemical names, synonyms, molecular formula or weight. These features are useful to investigators to find information on suspect chemicals, understand their properties and the dangers they pose, what medical treatments are recommended, and how to render the chemicals safe.
Centralizing Chemical Data for Greater Accessibility
“In the past, it was difficult to get chemical information,” Morton said. “We had information stored in one computer, on paper, in disparate forms, or we typically had only one copy of something needed for reference. And if several people needed this particular resource, they had to wait until another individual completed their work with it.”
CARD was created to improve the work of DHS agencies—to have an electronically-centered information system for everyone to be able to use the same information simultaneously. Once developed, the system was offered to anyone with security clearance.
S&T identified the need for CARD in 2008 and CSAC launched the first version in late 2009. The first major overhaul of the platform came in 2018, when S&T collaborated with the FBI’s Chemical Forensics Program. The FBI wanted to store their chemical data together as a taxonomy. CSAC decided to rework CARD in a similar way – putting all the chemicals of the same chemical class together in the same taxonomy while separating chemicals from several S&T programs into their respective taxonomies.
“We are responsive to anybody who uses the system. CARD has been evolving with input from many reviewers,” Morton said.
Future of CARD
Although the latest version of CARD was just released, CSAC will start working on yet another update in the second half of fiscal year 2020.
“Every two quarters, there is a regular update to CARD” Morton said. “Additionally, we continuously update as critical information is made available. Sometimes things change weekly.”
The next version will target an audience of broader technical background.
CSAC also plans to offer a limited, unclassified version of CARD in the future. Because the platform itself is not classified, Morton and his team will launch a version that contains only unclassified open source information on an unclassified government server, opening CARD to an even wider audience.
“We want to have an unclassified platform so that people within DHS subdivisions, contractors and interagency can use it,” Morton said. “This is about serving a broad spectrum of National needs, and not just our own. So, the more users CARD has, the more feedback we will get, the better the system will become.”