Phantom Phosgene: A Mysterious Incident in Sweden


By Patrick Norén

On Friday February 23, eight people were hospitalized and around 500 evacuated after workers at the headquarters of Sweden’s security service (Säpo) reported an unusual smell.

Emergency services subsequently launched a major operation that saw hundreds of meters of barriers set up around the premises and the closure of the nearest exit of the nearby motorway. People in nearby buildings were told to keep their windows shut, schoolchildren were kept indoors, and residents of the sealed-off zone were refused access to their homes.

Emergency services were first contacted by Säpo at 12:30 local time, and first responders ended their operation at 16:30.

What Happened?

The unusual smell outside Säpo’s headquarters in Solna, Stockholm, was first reported as a suspected gas leak. However, following the four-hour-long operation Press Officer at Säpo Karl Melin said that “after the rescue service’s intervention, we were able to establish that there was no gas inside the building or outside.”

This information was contradicted by several local media reports claiming that the toxic gas phosgene had been detected by sensors on the roof of the security service’s HQ. 

Then, on February 28, the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet published an article saying that the presence of phosgene had indeed been detected at the building, citing official documents from Stockholm County’s Administrative Board.

According to the notes from the Board coordination meeting held at 14:45 on the Friday and seen by Svenska Dagbladet, emergency services had detected a concentration of phosgene of 0.6 parts per million, and noted that this concentration was decreasing until it eventually reached zero. These notes also confirmed that the gas had originally been detected by sensors on the roof of the HQ.

After this development, Säpo Press Spokesperson Gabriel Wernstedt denied this was the case, telling media: “No, we are not saying more than what we said on Friday, namely that the rescue effort that was carried out by the rescue service […] then ended after the rescue service had ascertained that there was no gas either inside or outside the building.”

Wernstedt also could not answer why there was conflicting information about the alarm, and referred all questions to the emergency services.

Faulty Sensors? Suspect Welding?

Speaking to the Swedish TT News Agency, intelligence expert Joakim von Braun said that a likely explanation for the gas being recorded was a fault with the sensors, adding that he considered it “preposterous” that someone would intentionally release the gas.

It is also possible to create phosgene gas when welding metal that has been cleaned with chlorine, and this has been posited as another explanation for the incident.

The BBC and other news outlets writing in February also noted that the incident coincided with a visit of Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson to Hungary as his country was about to clear the final hurdle to joining NATO. Although Russia has said that it would take “military-technical and other” measures to protect itself after Sweden’s accession to the military alliance, at the time of writing there is no publicly available information suggesting that Russia may have been involved in the incident.

What is Phosgene?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), phosgene is a major industrial chemical used to make plastics and pesticides. It is a gas at room temperature, and may appear as either colorless or as a “white to pale” cloud. At low concentrations it has an odor of “newly mown hay or green corn”, but can have an unpleasant odor at higher concentrations. 

Most pertinently, however, phosgene was used extensively during World War I as a choking agent and was responsible for the large majority of deaths, according to the CDC. The immediate symptoms of phosgene exposure at dangerous concentrations include coughing, burning in the eyes and throat, blurred vision, and nausea and vomiting. 

If exposed to high concentrations of phosgene, a person may develop a pulmonary edema within two to six hours. No antidote to phosgene exists, and the only treatment for phosgene involves removing it from the body as soon as possible and hospital care.

Thankfully, none of the eight people admitted to hospital in Sweden after apparent exposure to phosgene suffered serious effects, and they were soon discharged.

Questions Remain

The only clear fact about the mysterious incident outside the HQ of Sweden’s security service is that Säpo and the police, and Stockholm County and local media, dispute the facts. 

Säpo and the police have stood by their initial statement that no gas was detected, while communication between emergency services, local government, and local media would suggest otherwise.

Although faulty sensors on the roof of the building may offer a potential explanation, this does not explain the source of the unusual smell and why eight people were hospitalized.

Patrick Norén is the Editor of CBNW Magazine.

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