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Chemical Warfare Agents Syria: poisonous fruits of chemistry

Posted on April 17th, 2017 by in Chemical R&D

uses of chemical weapons

Historical Timeline of the uses of chemical weapons (Source: The Economist, www.economist.com)

The recent events in Syria have brought chemical warfare agents (CWA) back into the limelight. The Timeline in the image above lists major uses of poisonous agents against humans in the last hundred years.  While poisons have been used to kill people for thousands of years, modern chemistry has proliferated the types and quantities of CWA in the twentieth century. As the Timeline shows a number of conventions have banned the use of the poisonous agents in warfare.

What is a chemical warfare agent?

The conventional definition of a CWA is a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system such as a bomb or a shell.  The term chemical weapon is applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves (Source: Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, www.opcw.org).

The toxic chemicals that have been used as chemical weapons, or have been developed for use as chemical weapons, can be categorized as choking, blister, blood, or nerve agents. The most well-known agents are as follows: choking agents – chlorine (Cl2) and phosgene (COCl2), blister agents (or vesicants)-mustard (C4H8Cl2S) and lewisite (C2H2AsCl3), blood agents – hydrogen cyanide (HCN), nerve agents – Sarin (C4H10FO2P), Soman (C7H16FO2P) and VX (C11H26NO2PS).

History of the use of chemical warfare agents

During World War I, chlorine and phosgene gases were released from canisters on the battlefield dispersed by the wind. These chemicals were manufactured in large quantities by the turn of the century and were deployed as weapons during the protracted period of trench warfare. The first large-scale attack with chlorine gas occurred April 22nd 1915 at Ieper in Belgium.  The use of several different types of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, resulted in 90,000 deaths and over one million casualties during the war (Source: Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, www.opcw.org).

Those injured in chemical warfare suffered from the effects for the rest of their lives; thus the events at Ieper during World War I scarred a generation. By the end of World War I over 124,000 tons of chemical agents had been used on human beings. The means of delivery of chemical agents has evolved over the twentieth century, increasing these weapons’ already frightening capacity to kill and maim, through the development of chemical munitions in the form of artillery shells, mortar projectiles, aerial bombs, spray tanks and landmines.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both maintained enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons, amounting to tens of thousands of tons. The amount of chemical weapons held by these two countries was enough to destroy much of the human and animal life on Earth.

Iraq used mustard gas and Sarin on Iranian soldiers and civilians during the war in the 1980s.  Iraq also used mustard gas and nerve agents against Kurdish residents of the village of Halabja, in Northern Iraq, in 1988.  The horrific pictures of Halabja victims shocked the world at the time of the negotiations in Geneva on the Chemical Weapons Convention. An article in the Foreign Policy (Source: August 26, 2013) reported, based on declassified CIA documents: “In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including Sarin, a lethal nerve agent.

The massive scale of the death toll inflicted on Iran by the Iraqi use of CWA was a reminder of scenes from the killing fields of World War I. The actual pictures of the dead and the wounded are too gruesome to print.

The two examples of the use of chemical weapons by terrorists were the Sarin poisoning incident in Matsumoto, a Japanese residential community, in 1994, and the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, both perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyu doomsday cult. These two attacks re-focused international attention on the potential use of chemical weapons by terrorists, and on the dangers posed by chemical weapons.

The most recent uses of CWA have been committed in Syria, by the government of President Assad, against the Syrian people.  Since 2011 several chlorine attacks on opposition towns and villages of Syria have been documented by international community.  ISIS has also been accused of CWA attacks using captured Syrian chemical agents.  The events of April 2017 are but another instance of death unleashed by a lethal agent (Sarin gas) against the Syrian people in Idlib Province.

Dual use chemicals

Some toxic chemicals, and/or their precursors, have industrial applications.  For example, they are employed as basic raw materials, such as hydrogen cyanide that is the precursor of sodium and potassium cyanide used in gold mining and electroplating.  A number of useful organic chemicals are made from sodium cyanide, yet it is a potent poison.  Another example is phosgene which when reacted with methylamine produces methyl isocyanate (MIC).  It is an intermediate chemical in the production of carbamate pesticides, adhesives and rubbers.  Other examples of beneficial CWA use include as anti-neoplastic agents, which prevent the multiplication of cells, or as fumigants, herbicides or insecticides.

Chemical warfare agents are manufactured by the most evil application of the science of chemistry – the same science that has created the modern living and health standards of our World.  A tangible sign of human progress will be the destruction of all existing stockpiles of CWA and never using them in warfare again.

This post has relied on the information published by Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, www.opcw.org.

 


 

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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