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Spectre of chemical death rises again

The New Straits Times, October 14, 2001

By Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

AS this column is being written, there is a feeling of deja vu in Afghanistan. The dreaded so-called “targeted action” has begun and raises the possibilities of globalised violence, especially as the US has hinted at taking the action beyond Afghanistan.

The prospects of biological weapons and deadly toxins being involved, as predicted by some authorities are even more real (Poison Control, Oct 7), if not coupled with chemical weapons as well.

In fact, in recent times there have been a number of cases where the latter have been implicated. For example, the Gulf War of 1990, and more recently in 1995, following the fall of the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina 


Indeed, the previous world wars recorded the horrendous effects of toxic chemicals.

It is just a matter of time before similar nightmares become stark realities again. The attack on Afghanistan, and even more so Iraq, provides the perfect stage.

In today’s world all chemicals have the potential to be turned into weapons of sorts, even in time of peace.

Take for example, the nerve gas attack at the Tokyo subway station on March 20,1995, where Sarin, a nerve gas produced for war in the 1930s, was used. Indeed, the use of chemicals in war is quite common.

In 1915, the first large-scale use of chemical weapons was recorded. About 150 tonnes of chlorine gas was released in Ypres, Belgium, during World War I. More than 5,000 men were killed.

In France, a year before, another type called “tear gas”, was first used. Today, this gas is more commonly used in civilian riot control and for crowd dispersal.

Later during the First World War, phosgene and diphosgene were introduced. They are “asphyxiating agents” that result in breathing difficulty and are fatal. Others include chlorpicrin and nitrous fumes.

Then there was hydrogen cyanide gas. Cyanide is a supertoxic chemical that can cause death almost immediately. Aptly, the gas is also employed in judicial death chambers.

In July 1917, mustard gas was introduced. It was developed from a substance, code-named LOST, an acronym of its German inventors, Lommel and Steinkopf. The gas was used as aerosols or sprays to contaminate the war zone. By 1918, one in every four artillery shells fired contained gas.

Mustard gas was especially feared since it can penetrate clothing, leather and rubber goods rapidly, and attack the skin as well as the mucous membrane, affecting the whole body. Such agents are called vesicants.

Reportedly, some countries, including the US, still hold large stocks of the gas. It can cause severe burns or blisters and permanent damage to the lungs when inhaled. Another example is Lewisite (named after its developer, the American chemist Winford Lee Lewis), “the stuff beside which mustard gas becomes a sissy’s scent!”.

Yet another chemical is arsine (a finely ground powder) used as choking gas. The powder is so fine that it can penetrate even conventional gas masks to induce vomiting. This forces the victim to take off the mask and exposure to other poison gases discharged simultaneously is invariable.

In all, for World War I alone, about 20 types of gases were invented and used. Tens of millions of gas shells were fired, and an estimated 100,000 men died as a result. More than one million suffered the agonies of toxic chemical exposure.

These practices were condemned by many countries, and in 1922, the Washington Protocol was signed to ban the use of such chemicals. Three years later in 1925, 106 states ratified the Geneva Protocol condemning the use of chemical weapons, but stopping short of banning development and stockpiling.

Long before that, the 1899 Hague Convention renounced the “diffusion of asphyxiating or harmful gases”. Despite this, newer, more lethal chemicals continued to be developed.

The Germans for example produced a series of compounds capable of paralysing breathing capacity even when used in small amounts. Tabun is the first in a series of these compounds called organophoshorus manufactured in the late 1930s.

Sarin belongs to this group. Other examples are: Soman, and VX. Sarin is said to be the US standard nerve agent and Soman, the former USSR’s. Today, in many countries similar compounds, used as pesticides, can be bought off the shelves.

In short, the evil of chemical weapons is not new in the history of wars. Unfortunately we seem to learn very little from history, especially in our desire to seek power and revenge against our fellow human beings.

Recommended site: http://www.worldwar1.com/arm006.htm

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