Terrorism and Building Infrastructure

When it comes to asymmetrical warfare and terrorism, trying to do damage with only a small team of people and limited resources becomes a task focused more on combining creativity and cunning, than delivering brute force in superior numbers and material.

The primary focus to accomplish the mission is utilizing available materials and exploiting the ease of using them. We have seen attempts with car bombs worldwide (including the first New York Trade Center Bombing), bombs in knapsacks (Boston), and other individual weapons: knives, machetes and guns; so there are many offensive moves that we must be prepared for and defend against.

Lately, terrorists have been using trucks and other vehicles to kill people on the street. It has become a common strategy and one that is hard to defend against. Instead of focusing just on the defense of this already known tactic, we must also understand and prepare for the next wave of attacks that may revert back to a form of bombing or setting fires using materials at hand.

We must re-think building materials

From organizations like the Building Owners and Management Association (BOMA) to the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), some materials being used in buildings have to be re-evaluated. They can be used as critical parts for an attack requiring nothing to be brought into a building except an igniter to set the building ablaze.

Do “Best Practices” of electrical contractors for cabling infrastructure and its distribution still specify the use of Teflon-coated CAT5, CAT6 and CAT7 cabling for commercial buildings? If they do, do they know they are adding a potential killer to every office and data center cabling infrastructure they install?

What about all those “building experts” on the real estate side who wave LEEDS certification and claim to know so much about energy-savings in buildings? Are they even aware that cabling clad with Teflon and its generic equivalents (PTFE, PFOA, PFOS) used for power and communications infrastructure can be turned into a poisonous nerve gas in a fire?

How many wave CISCO certificates, vendor solution certifications, PMPs, and other “impressive” documents unaware of this real and deadly problem.

With all the IT executives, “certified” network design consultants, and enterprise solution providers extolling the virtues of cloud computing for corporate enterprises, are they even aware of some of the deleterious attributes in some of its basic building blocks?

This is from an article I wrote in 2012 where I discussed the concerns of an office building fire: “In the U.S., there are approximately 8.5 million miles of abandoned cable in the workplace. Most of that cable contains Teflon FEP or Neoflon FEP (approximately 11 pounds per thousand feet of plenum cable). This material is potentially highly toxic and extremely corrosive. About 500 million pounds of FEP equals a potential super weapon or threat to the U.S. workplace.”

Teflon, a long-used material in frying pans and cable cladding, has been pointed out to me to be harmful in a different way in office fires. While it may be flame retardant, the tradeoff is that it can emit a toxic gas when it’s heated.

Although the coated cables are flame-retardant, when heated, the Teflon starts to decompose and part of it evaporates into different poisonous gasses including a paralyzing nerve gas. This starts to happen at 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Teflon can be recognized as a cladding or insulator on any cabling if the cabling states it is composed of PTFE polymer (PTFE is polytetrafluoroethylene).

PFOA (or perfluorooctanoic acid or C8) is a carcinogen and once it is in your body it stays there. It does not decompose.

It has been documented through studies that traces of PFOA are in at least 99% of the population’s bloodstream. People who work in chemical plants have much higher levels than the average person.

Poison gas not the only threat

Does anyone know how corrosive the gas is when you have a fire in a data center and something that is Teflon-based flames up? The corrosive gas that develops from the burning cable will bring down the whole data center. The gas will corrode all the hard-drives very quickly. Good luck getting back up and trying to restore data that has been literally evaporated!

Is that what happened when Delta Airlines lost all its computers for a day last year? A small fire in their data center? It did happen to another data center at another company. A small fire caused all their 34 servers to lose their hard drives. Better have a back-up that is in a distant data center.

If people who are building and maintaining data centers were aware of this issue with cabling, I wonder if they would still specify the same cables? Why not Halar or some other coatings? These compounds are superior in their fire resistance.

This is not a small issue. When it comes to office buildings, you can measure the amount of Teflon and all its generic names by 100’s of pounds per building. It’s not just in the cabling.

Materials for office furniture, flooring, stain-resistant carpeting, and other building components utilize PFCs. (PFC are poly-fluorinated compounds used for these protective or stain-resistant coatings.)

If you’re in charge of property management or facilities management, you should know this. Chances are, you have Teflon-coated cabling within your office and data center facilities. It is used throughout buildings as the main network distribution cabling infrastructure.

Teflon coatings in pots and pans is being phased out for health reasons. There is more Teflon behind the walls of an office building than there is in several stores selling pots and pans. We should be looking at phasing out any Teflon-based cabling in buildings as well if we are serious about creating a better and healthier work environment. And, one that does not lend itself as a good starting point for a potential terrorist attack.

There is more proof that when PTFE is heated as it would be in a fire, it emits the equivalent of a nerve gas: “Overheating of PTFE generates fumes of highly toxic PFIB (Perfluoroisobutylene) and poses a serious health hazard to the human respiratory tract. PFIB is approximately ten times as toxic as phosgene. Inhalation of this gas can cause pulmonary edema, which can lead to death. PFIB is included in Schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), as a result of the prompting by one delegation to the Conference on Disarmament…(You can read all of this article here).”

To all the network design experts out there, so much for your approach to attain “Best Practices.”

AND, you can burn up your worthless certificates. Just don’t burn them too close to the Teflon-coated cabling you authorized and had installed as a “Best Practice” design for your organization’s Cloud Computing solution.