» Links: 1995 Tokyo Subway Attack
It was a warm and sunny day on April 22, 1915 in Flanders. French, Algerian, and Canadian troops were holding the war-ravaged village of Neuve-Chapelle. At about 5PM, a grayish-green fog appeared to rise from the German trenches and drift towards the Algerians. The fog covered the Algerian trenches and flowed into the Algerian ranks like water. Suddenly, the Canadians saw the Algerian soldiers running to the rear, coughing and choking. Their departure left an 8000-yard gap in the Allied line.
Several minutes later, the fog drifted to the Canadian lines. The Canadians received a small taste of what the Algerians had been through, but, fortunately, it was only a taste. They were able to hold their line and repel the German infantry pushing forward as soon as the green fog started to dissipate.
This was the first use of deadly gas in modern warfare.
What Are Chemical Weapons?
Chemical substances, whether gaseous, liquid, or solid, which might be employed because of their direct toxic effects on man, animals, and plants
United Nations, 1969
Chemical warfare is the intentional use of poisonous substances that results in death or injury. These weapons use chemical toxins or poisons in order to kill or incapacitate the victim. Chemical warfare is less destructive than nuclear weapons and landmines. They do not cause massive destruction of land, but rather of living things. They rely on chemical effects rather than physical effects such as blast and heat. Chemical weapons can take the form of gases, liquids, or powders. During warfare, the chemicals used are known as Chemical Weapon Agents (CWA). About 70 chemical agents have been used in the 20th century.
Most weaponized gases are heavier than air. Instead of dissipating into the upper atmosphere, they flow to the lowest points on the ground. Nowadays, chemical weapons can be given off as powders, smoke formations, or aerosols (small, fine particles supsended in a gas like fog and smoke). The wind can then disperse them to a wide target area.
Chemical and biological weapons are not the same. Although they are commonly associated, chemical weapons kill or injure by poisoning, while biological weapons kill or injure by causing disease.
To see similarities and differences betwen biological and chemical weapons, click here.
Types of Chemical Weapons Agents
Weaponized chemical agents can be classified into the following categories:
Blister agents, also known as vesicants, are toxic substances that cause wounds to the skin and mucous membranes, the tissues that line body cavities such as the mouth and nose. Blister agents literally induce blisters within a few hours from the time they come into contact with living tissue. They also cause damage to the eyes, respiratory system, and internal organs.
Choking are heavier gases that create fluid buildup in lungs and cause death from lack of oxygen. They cause inflammation of the lung tissue. As a result, large quantities of fluid from the bloodstream enter the lungs, causing pulmonary edema. Victims of choking agents "drown" in from their own bodily fluids. Choking agents are also known as pulmonary agents.
Blood agents, also known as cyanogen agents, are substances that are absorbed into the body through inhalation. They interfere with the transport of oxygen gas throughout the body by damaging body tissues. Blood agents have the capacity to kill by asphyxiation (suffocation) within 15 minutes. They do not actually affect the blood itself. Instead, blood agents exert their toxic effect at the cellular level by interrupting the electron transport chain in mitochondria and subsequently disrupting ATP synthesis. A common example of a blood agent is carbon monoxide.
Discovered in the 1930's by German scientists, nerve agents are much more lethal than World War I chemical weapons. They can enter into the body through inhalation or through the skin. They cause damage to the nervous system, leading to loss of muscle control and, more commonly, death as a resuslt of paralysis of the respiratory system. They can cause breathing problems, confusion, convulsions, and ultimately death.
Watch 24 Season 5? Here's the scoop on Sentox Nerve gas used in this television series by the terrorists:
"Sentox" nerve gas is a fictional substance. In many ways it bears resemblence to sarin. However, as a nerve agent, "Sentox" would have killed Jack Bauer at such close exposure to his skin even though Bauer had a gas mask on. In addition, US nerve agents are not stored in pressurized canisters as depicted in the show, but rather in bombs, rockets, and artillery shells.
In the television series, terrorists steal the nerve gas from canisters under military guard and store them in an airport hanger. In reality, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, US chemical weapons at seven US Army depots accross the country have been well secured. The weapons have been mostly placed in heavily protected concrete bunkers.
In 1969, the accidental release of poison gas in Utah resulted in the deaths of thousands of sheep and left local residents with long-term health problems. Russia has hundreds of former secret chemical weapons dumps leaking poisons into the water and soil.
The Japanese used mustard gas and other chemical agents against the Chinese in World War II before the US and other Western nations became involved. The Chinese had no power to retaliate.
Difficult to Produce?
It is relatively simple to manufacture some chemical weapons. Production involves many processes that are adapted from standard commercial engineering principles. Agents such as mustard gas are very easy to produce. Many chemists are familiar with the principles behind building a chemical weapon, and the literature about chemical weapons is easily accessible through mediums such as the Internet.
Chemical weapons can be produced in factories that produce commercial products, since both use the same precursors (substances from which other products are formed). Any nation with a petrochemical (chemical such as plastic derived from petroleum or natural gas) plant or fertilizer industry has the ability to produce chemical weapons. It takes only a matter of weeks or months to convert a commercial fertilizer plant into a military nerve gas plant.
Fortunately, there is a bright side. The manufacture of chemical weapons agents requires large sites to produce the chemicals and to store them once they have been synthesized. The large plants give off waste gases that can be detected and monitored.
What if a chemical attack was made on your school?
"If there is some kind of definite agent released and somebody's claimed responsibility for it, whatever it is, that would change our protocol versus trying to go in and figure out what it is. If it was a scene where we're just being called to the school because there was a strange odor and a lot of kids are getting sick, then that becomes a little different. We go in and try to investigate, find out what's going on, and then call for the appropriate resources to come help us." - listen
Mr. Doug Vorp, Deputy Chief, Plainsboro Fire Company
- "CHINA JAPAN CHEMICAL WEAPONS." AccuNet/AP Multimedia Archive. 5 Sept 2002. AccuWeather, Inc. <http://ap.accuweather.com>. Licensed for educational research.
- "Chemical Warfare." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 5 May 2006, 11:52 UTC. 7 May 2006, 07:36 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chemical_warfare&oldid=51665720>.
- Dudley, William. Examining Issues Through Political Cartoons: Weapons of Mass Destruction. Farmington Hills: Gale, 2005. p8,11.
- Levine, Herbert. Chemical & Biological Weapons in Our Times. USA: Franklin Watts, 2000.
- Pringle, Laurence. Chemical and Biological Warfare: The Cruelest Weapons. USA: Pringle, 1993.
- Walker, Paul, and Jonathan Tucker. "The real chemical threat." Los Angeles Times. 1 Apr 2006. 12 Apr 2006. <http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-tucker1apr01,1,2323990.story>
- Weir, William. 50 Weapons That Changed Warfare. Franklin Lakes: Career Press, 2005.
Chapter 34, 161.
- Vorp, Doug. Personal Interview. 5 May 2006.