Defence against chemical weaponsChemical weapons are toxic chemicals that can cause death, injury, incapacitation, and sensory irritation, deployed via a delivery system, such as an artillery shell, rocket, or ballistic missile. The most prominent forms include nerve agents, blister agents, choking agents, and blood agents. Their use was widely condemned after agents such as chlorine and mustard gas were used in World War One. In the end, although chlorine gas killed many people, a large part of its use was psychological in that the sight and thought of it demoralized the troops on both sides.
This point was made chillingly in an extract of the famous poem by Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est, describing the experience of soldiers during a gas attack:Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!”An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, And flound’ring like a man on fire or lime . . .Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning .
. .’Chlorine gas is a visible green cloud, which made countermeasures fairly easy to implement. Once it was detected a damp cloth could be held over the mouth to prevent the soldier breathing in the gas. This cloth could be prepared with either water or urine, urine being more effective as the urea reacts with the chlorine to produce dichloro urea. This evolved into pads that could be tied onto the face, many of which unfortunately led to suffocation when wet, and then onto smoke helmets that covered the whole head and finally onto gas masks. During World War 1, the first large scale use of chemical weapons, the countermeasures were born of trial and error. For example, it was found that chlorine gas clings to the ground and more soldiers survived by standing on the fire step, raising themselves up away from the toxic fume and the worst effects fell to the wounded soldiers who were lying in stretchers or on the floor.At a time where cowardice was so heavily looked down upon, to the point where men who did not join the army were given white feathers, the use of something long considered the cowards weapon was seen as particularly disgraceful. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force described it as “a cynical and barbarous disregard of the well-known usages of civilised war”. Four months later he reluctantly decided to fight fire with fire and attempted to gas the German trenches at the Battle of Loos. On that occasion the wind was blowing the wrong way and sent the canisters of toxic gas away from the German trenches and towards the British, which turned out to be fine because they were unable to open as the wrong turning keys had been sent with them.After the war two international protocols were made to ban the use of chemical weapons. The first is the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons in the field of conflict. Technically it does not restrict their use in internal conflicts, although over time it has been applied to that too. It allows the production, research and stockpiling of these weapons and also permits a nation to use them in retaliation to a chemical attack.The second protocol, Chemical Weapons Convention, was made to fill the holes left by the first and goes further, banning the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons. This was opened in 1993 and has 193 members, most of which have signed and ratified it. Exceptions include Israel which has not ratified it and Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan who have not signed it.1 Thanks to this protocol 96% of the worlds declared stockpiles have been destroyed.Unfortunately, the protocols have not been strictly followed, for example by Italy who used mustard gas in Ethiopia and Libya during World War Two. Other countries effected by chemical weapons in warfare include Vietnam, Rhodesia, Angola, China and the Kurds in Halabja. Even more recently are the many attacks reported in Syria. Some experts believe that in current times we are too lax about enforcing the ban on chemical weapons, including Hamish de Bretton-Gordan, a chemical weapons expert and advisor to NGO’s in Syria. He points out that several NATO countries are paying lip service to the agreements they have signed without taking any action in response to the attacks in Syria, with the exception of America who followed through with an air strike in April 2017 after the Khan Sheikhoun nerve agent attack. Aside from governments using chemical weapons to try and control a dissenting population there is the threat of DIY extremist individuals carrying out smaller, but still potentially fatal, attacks. There is also the question of the use of pharmaceutical compounds which could be turned into weapons, such as fentanyls which are central nervous system-acting chemicals that could be used to incapacitate. The British Medical Association highlighted the risk these pose when used outside of a clinical setting in 2007, followed by almost 40 other countries.In modern Britain chemical weapons pose less of a threat than they do in the Middle East. According to the picture in the appendix we should be more concerned about literally everything else, with large scale chemical attacks being the least likely to occur, although they are rated very highly in terms of impact severity, second only to a pandemic flu. Despite this the government, as well as the governments of other countries, is prepared to face chemical attacks. In the aftermath of the Salisbury attack the MOD moved to set up a Ј48m defence centre specifically for chemical weapons, in addition to the existing Defence Science Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. The British army also received vaccines for anthrax in case biological weapons are deployed. As technology advances and more complex chemical weapons are made, more efficient defences are developed to protect against them. The US is looking into a new method of destroying stockpiles using x-ray bombs, instead of burning them or deploying them in a carefully controlled environment. They are apparently thinking of using explosives in order to compress aluminium or helium, leading the x-ray emissions. The advantages of this method would be no damage to the structure in which the weapons were held, lowering the chance of toxic material accidently spreading. The disadvantages include the x-ray needing to be much stronger than conventional ones, to the point where it will kill anyone who gets in its way.The US has also released guidelines for effectively decontaminating a crowd of people exposed to a chemical attack. They assure the reader that extensive research has gone into this method and that it can remove 99% of toxic chemicals from the skin. This method is called dry decontamination, and it is very different to the old method of wet decontamination. In the old method victims would strip down and walk through a corridor with trucks spraying water from either side, also known as a pipe ladder system. In the new method the victims also strip down and then they wipe their skin with absorbent materials such as paper towels or bandages. The problems with wet decontamination is that it can take 20 minutes to work and many toxic chemicals can do significant damage in less time, even assuming that the victims are decontaminated immediately after coming into contact with the chemical. On top of this it is unpleasant and carries a small risk of hypothermia. Luckily dry decontamination can solve all these issues and it is hoped the guidelines will be followed by first responders in war zones. The research that led to these conclusions include Operation Downpour, set at the University of Rhode Island in August 2017. This operation involved spraying a harmless liquid containing a dye extracted from turmeric. This was designed to mimic mustard gas and show up under florescent light and be easily analysed using skin swabs. Three methods of decontamination were analysed; wet decontamination, dry decontamination and scrubbing with water and detergents. When all three methods are combined and correctly implemented 100% of the liquid was removed. When dry decontamination was used in combination with either of the others 96% of the liquid was removed and used on its own it goes up to 99% and used on its own it goes up to 99%. One thing that was very difficult to deal with was hair, which gas seems to stick to. In some situations it may be necessary to shave the heads of those effected. Another important part of defending against chemical weapons is preventing them from being manufactured. Because so many toxic chemicals and precursors to them are useful and even necessary in other ways they cannot be outright banned. For example thiodiglycol is a precursor to mustard gas and also used in pen ink, hydrogen cyanide can be made into a nerve agent and is also used in the production of nylon and phosphorus trichloride can be used to synthesize VX (an infamous nerve agent) but also used as a lubricant and a pesticide. All the companies who have signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention agree to monitor the production and sale of chemicals like these. Places that produce these are subject to regular inspections from the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) to verify that they have correctly declared the chemicals they make and handle. The OPCW is set up alongside the CWC to eliminate almost all chemical weapons, the exception being mild agents used by law enforcement for riot control. Beyond managing the agreement that 193 states signed up to and drawing up goals to help states get rid of their stockpiles, they also offer support for victims of chemical attacks and promote chemistry for peace and the free exchange of information. A secondary aim of there is to improve the economies of its member states though chemistry.In conclusion most of the world has agreed that the use of chemical weapons should be left in the past, not even to be used in retaliation. For the small number of organizations and individuals who disagree it is becoming more difficult, hopefully to the point where the effort and risk in carrying out an attack is not worth the result. By now most of them have been destroyed and responders have become more educated on proper decontamination methods. While it may be impossible to completely eliminate very small scale attacks carried out by desperate individuals there may be a point at which large scale chemical attacks will be totally preventable.Appendix