Chemical Weapons: What are they?

In conflict zones, armies have two types of weapons: those called conventional, and others called “unconventional”. Included in the classification of weapons of mass destruction, they include nuclear, radiological, bacteriological and chemical weapons – potentially deadly poisons that can be released in the form of gases, aerosols or liquids.

For these "CBRN" weapons, the impact can be very widespread and strike indiscriminately and uncontrollably both troops and civilians. This reinforces the feeling of vulnerability.

These characteristics of chemical weapons therefore also make them instruments of terror. They do not only injure the body: the risk, diffuse, often imperceptible, is just as harmful to the mental health of soldiers and threatened populations.

Characteristics of chemical agents

It exists four types of chemical agents :

  • Choking or asphyxiating agents (chlorine, phosgene, etc.). They cause irritation of the respiratory tract and damage the lungs by causing edema to form there (they fill with fluid).
  • Blood Agents (Hydrogen Cyanide, Cyanogen Chloride Gas, etc.) These are potent, fast-acting and diverse poisons. They can block respiration at the cellular level and therefore prevent the functioning of vital organs. They can also attack enzymes, those proteins that catalyze almost every biological reaction in the body. This paralyzes the synthesis of molecules used as an energy source, and leads to vomiting, dizziness, loss of consciousness and death.
  • Blister agents (sulphur mustard, or mustard gas, lewisite…) Deeply irritating, they burn and damage the skin, eyes, mucous membranes – such as inside the lungs – and other body tissues.
  • Nerve or nerve agents, which are divided into two groups: V-series agents (for venomous) and G-series agents (because originally produced by IG Farben, Germany). (The Novichok falls into this category, editor's note)

Both of these groups deactivate essential enzymes in the nervous system, leading to loss of control of one's body, seizures and death from respiratory paralysis. Even in low concentrations, they can cause injury by causing shortness of breath, visual impairment, etc.

Within the V series, thebest known agent is VX, a deadly poison that enters the body through contact with the skin. The others are VE, VM, VG and V-gas. Detailed information on their characteristics, which would make it possible to work on protecting against them, is scarcely available in the open literature.

The use of the VX agent as a poison was widely debated after the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in February 2017 in Malaysia.

G-series agents include soman (GD), sarin (GB) and tabun (GA) gases. They mainly cause death following their inhalation.

In March 1995, a Sarin attack in Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo sect left twelve dead and a thousand injured. More than 5 people required treatment following this event.

A use now officially prohibited

(La First World War, recalls the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which saw the dumping of more than 124 tons of chlorine, mustard gas, etc., left more than a million soldiers scarred for life. Another 000 died in terrible circumstances in battle. So much horror that led to the reflection and the drafting of several protocols aimed at banning their use, editor's note)

Blinded, blindfolded soldiers stand in single file. Vintage black and white photo
The use of gas during the First World War caused devastation (English soldiers of the 55th division blinded by an attack at Ypres, in Flanders, in April 1918).
Photo of Thomas Keith Aitken (Second Lieutenant), collections of the Imperial War Museums

Le Geneva protocol, which was signed in 1925, prohibits the use of chemical (and biological) weapons in war… This did not, however, prevent some from being used later. If gases and their ravages are most often associated with the First World War, more recent uses are thus always identified during conflicts.

In 2017, the Red Cross announced that civilians in Mosul, Iraq, had been exposed to vesicants during fighting between Islamic State fighters and US-backed Iraqi forces. (Their use is also debated in Syria, editor's note)

International export controls regulate the sale of equipment used for their large-scale production. It is therefore quite difficult to acquire raw materials for this purpose. However, since most chemical agents are not found in nature, obtaining them requires industrial synthesis and a certain investment if mass production is desired.

However, this technology is now available for a large proportion of chemical agents. And the equipment allowing their manufacture on a small scale can be purchased from non-specialized brands.

The impacts of chemical weapons

Chemical weapons, especially in the form of gas, are particularly frightening. There is not yet a way to fight against gas clouds, and some products are able to pass through natural rubber, thus making protection unnecessary.

Additionally, most of the four Agent types are Invisible, Tasteless, Odorless, Silent, and Insidious – further heightening the aura of dread that surrounds them.

Nevertheless, some have typical smells, which soldiers and civilians could be trained to recognize. For example, mustard gas smells of garlic, hydrogen cyanide of bitter almond, phosgene of freshly cut hay, and lewisite of geranium.

But in the presence of a chemical cloud, soldiers can only wait for the gas to pass – and hope that their masks and respirators will be effective. So much so that they sometimes develop a “gas mask phobia”, or a feeling of claustrophobia, when wearing protective masks.

Also, when soldiers are unable to avoid these anxious situations, they may become nervous, panicked, irrational or experience personality changes, feeling detached from themselves. For example, they can take off their gas mask or run without worrying about anything. These are common symptoms in veterans and civilians suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The terror they cause is an integral part of the psychological component of chemical weapons. Soldiers may feel an increased sense of stress and fear of chemical attack just by seeing artillery, aircraft, missiles, or other systems that may be used to broadcast them.

This anxiety about the elusiveness of gas can cause soldiers to mistakenly think that mild symptoms of stress, anxiety, and minor infectious diseases (runny nose, rash, blisters, eye irritation, shortness of breath, and diarrhea) are the early signs of exposure to chemical agents.

Protect yourself against chemical agents

The fact that use is still possible despite the ban forces armies to think about protecting their soldiers. Over the course of the conflicts and the evolution of the knowledge of chemical agents, many techniques have appeared.

During the 1991 Gulf War, American troops thus protected themselves using equipment such as gas masks, helmets, rubber gloves, combat overgarments (or BDO, for "battle -dress over-garment”), balaclavas and over-boots. (France has its own protective equipment, editor's note)

The BDO is a combination (coat and pants) composed of an inner layer of polyurethane foam impregnated with charcoal intended to absorb and trap chemical agents, and an outer layer of cotton with camouflage markings. While it provides good protection, wearing the BDO severely limits combat capability – especially if worn for a long time.

BDO and associated hoods cause a rapid rise in body temperature, which then increases the risk of heat stroke and exhaustion (in the desert in particular). Rubber gloves limit the sense of touch and the ability to perform delicate manipulations. Gas masks also reduce the ability to speak, hear and see.

But, as the military realized from the First World War, if gas masks with respirators most often protect the respiratory tract and the eyes, certain agents such as mustard gas are able to pass through them.

During World War I, the Germans used bleaching powder to treat attacked skin surfaces. This method was not optimal due to the amount of product required. Also, the powder boxes were an extra burden to carry.

Applying barrier cream before an attack also proved ineffective, as it did not provide a lasting defense. The mobile American bathing units, intended to decontaminate the soldiers, also seemed ineffective, as they were too few and very heavy.

Another angle of defense against chemical attacks was a wearable detection system on the battlefield. As many chemical agents are odorless, the troops needed an automatic detector and an alarm system to warn them in time and allow them to put on their gas masks in time.

Nevertheless, the detector had several major weaknesses. It did not work in sub-freezing temperatures, could run out of battery power, and required frequent maintenance.

All of this gives chemical weapons a special status. While it has been proven that they do not have a decisive impact on the outcome of a conflict, their psychological effect (on soldiers as well as on civilian populations) means that they continue to be used – at least as a threat. They are thus more effective as a weapon of terror or tactics (to strike a limited determined sector) than as weapons of mass destruction stricto sensu.

Mutti Anggitta, Analis Utama Keamanan dan Perempuan, Laboratory Indonesia 2045

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shuttertsock / Fred Marie

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