Reacting to Chemicals: The Other Weapons of Mass Destruction

December 3, 2012
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

They’re chemical weapons, horrific tools of death that have caught the imaginations of Hollywood and the eyes of tyrants. Mustard gas, Sarin, VX—once designed for dictators as their top terror weapon, now at risk to be the weapons of terrorists. What do these weapons do, and how much of a threat do they pose? For all the anxiety over nuclear weapons, it’s commonly ignored that chemical weapons aren’t in just development—they’re already here.

The Weapons

The Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988 en.wikipedia.org/Sa.vakilian

Movies and television programs have turned chemical weapons into potent forces of death that kill in gruesome, disturbing ways. Three of the chemical weapons most commonly discussed today—mustard gas, Sarin, and VX—certainly do horrific things to their victims. But somewhat unexpectedly, they aren’t guaranteed to kill. Some are more dangerous than others and, in some cases, delivery (gas or liquid) plays a key role in their lethality.

A good source of information about chemical weapons is the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a US governmental agency tasked with monitoring and responding to health concerns. The CDC’s Web site includes a list of facts about each of these three chemical weapons. Here’s a quick rundown:

en.wikipedia.org/John Andersson Sulfur Mustard—

Mustard gas used during World War I
Also called mustard gas, sulfur mustard is known as a “blistering agent.” If that sounds painful, it is. The CDC says it causes “blistering of the skin and mucous membranes on contact.” Among the symptoms of exposure, sulfur mustard can cause fever, vomiting, bloody nose, shortness of breath, yellow skin blistering, and even blindness. Mustard gas exposure can happen in a number of ways: skin contact, breathing the gas form, or touching it in liquid form. The liquid form is more likely to cause severe burning, including third-degree burns.

Mustard gas used during World War I en.wikipedia.org/John Andersson

The weapon itself is very old, including use in World War I. Surprisingly, it doesn’t kill very often. The CDC notes that fewer than 5% of those who were exposed and received medical care in WWI died from the incident. While extensive exposure or burning can cause death, the CDC says that exposure is “usually not fatal.” However, there is no antidote, so the only way to decrease symptoms is to get away from the chemical and cleanse the body. Medical care to reduce the effects can also be given.

Sarin Gas—Much more dangerous than mustard gas, Sarin is a nerve agent. The CDC says the chemical affects the “off switch” that regulates the stimulation of muscles and glands. Ultimately, it can over stimulate the body, exhausting the muscles needed for breathing and leading to death by suffocation. Its list of symptoms includes some of those for mustard gas, but adds convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure, loss of consciousness, and death. The CDC notes that when exposed to mild or moderate amounts of Sarin, people “usually recover completely.” However, unlike mustard gas, those who are severely exposed “are not likely to survive.”

There are antidotes for Sarin, but they are most effective if used quickly. Other means of prevention or reducing the threat of exposure include getting to higher ground and washing the chemical off the body. However, Sarin has a nasty impact for those who may try to treat those in need; the CDC says it can emanate from clothing for about 30 minutes and thus harm others. It’s quick to evaporate, which makes it easy to shift from liquid to vapor form, also causing it to be “an immediate but short-lived threat.”

VX Gas—The most powerful of the three chemical weapons discussed here, VX, is also a nerve agent. Unlike Sarin, its evaporative properties are similar to motor oil. Hence, it’s more difficult to turn into a gas without extreme heat. The CDC says, “Compared with the nerve agent Sarin…VX is considered to be much more toxic by entry through the skin and somewhat more toxic by inhalation.” It attacks the muscles and glands like Sarin and has the same terrifying symptoms.

Unlike Sarin, however, VX is a short- and long-term threat due to its slow evaporation. “Under average weather conditions, VX can last for days on objects that it has come in contact with. Under very cold conditions, VX can last for months…Surfaces contaminated with VX should therefore be considered a long-term hazard.” There is also an antidote for VX with similar preventative measures, but beware of the extreme danger of VX. Says the CDC, “It is possible that any visible VX liquid contact on the skin, unless washed off immediately, would be lethal…Mild or moderately exposed people usually recover completely. Severely exposed people are not likely to survive.”

The Players

155mm mustard gas shells
As exclusive as the “nuclear club” is today, it’s shocking that the list of owners of chemical weapons in the Middle East alone reads like a “Who’s Who” list. Egypt has held chemical weapons in the past and actually used them in war in Yemen in the 1960s. Iran is believed to have once had them, although they are now apparently more focused on atomic threats. Libya also held chemical weapons at one point, promised to get rid of them, and then apparently broke that promise.

Iraq is perhaps the most infamous purveyor of the WMDs, believed to have used chemical weapons in the Iraq–Iran war and against rebelling Kurdish Iraqis in the 1980s. The BBC notes that in just one chemical weapon bombing attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988—which used mustard gas, Sarin, and another nerve gas known as Tabun—3,200–5,000 civilians were killed. Ultimately, the US, the UK, and other nations went to war with Iraq in 2003—in large part due to concerns over their chemical weapons. Controversy erupted when the massive, dangerous stockpiles were never discovered.

Speculation from some has questioned whether the Iraqi weapons could have been moved across the border to Syria. Regardless, of all the nations that have held chemical weapons in the Middle East, it is Syria that remains the largest threat today. In fact, a report from The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank said Syria is believed to not only have the most sizable chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East, but possibly the fourth-largest in the world. Mustard gas, Sarin, and VX are all potentially in the Syrian arsenal.

Hopefully, regional terror groups don’t possess chemical weapons yet. Hizbullah’s patronage from Syria has led to fears that Damascus could transfer chemical weapons to the Lebanese terrorist organization. Extremist forces present in Syria and Libya also could use the chaos to potentially acquire chemical weapons. Regarding that concern, Yiftah Shapir, a senior research fellow and WMD researcher at the Institute of National Strategic Studies in Israel, said of Libya’s chemical weapon situation after the revolution there: “Some of these were destroyed, but I wouldn’t bet my life that no chemical weapons remain in Libya to this day.”

The Threat

IDF Home Front Command drills Yet, lest this leads to panic in the streets, it should be remembered that chemical weapons are not easy to use. And even when they are used by terror groups, their scope has so far been limited. It is often forgotten that chemical weapons have already been used by terrorists—in Japan. The Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed a Sarin gas attack in the Japanese subway system in 1995.

According to The New York Times, the chemical was used as a liquid and not a gas, which decreased its effectiveness. Yet its location, an underground tunnel system, did enhance its potency somewhat. It killed 12 people and injured 5,500. The tragedy of that attack cannot be understated, but its results were unexpected. A vicious, lethal attack with a potent nerve gas didn’t kill the thousands that Hollywood might have portrayed if filming a similar incident, although thousands were harmed.

Both the IISS report and Shapir downplayed the uniqueness of the chemical weapon threat—even from national militaries. The IISS said that the WMDs are “not effective on the battlefield” and “ensuring their effective deployment and even distribution in targeted areas would be complicated.” Shapir felt that getting the chemicals to release into the air from a missile attack is quite complex.

The height of the weapon release is key—too low and it will be mostly dispersed into the ground, and too high and it can be dispersed into nothing. Shapir even argued many terrorists don’t want to use these weapons due to the risk of mishandling them, and Hizbullah might not risk a harsher retaliation for attacking Israel with them. That being said, the Japanese cult attempted a chemical attack, so apparently some terrorists are crazy enough to do it.

And what about the times Iraq used chemicals? Surely the thousands killed justify the hype over chemical weapons. Certainly, chemical weapons kill. And they are designed to kill large numbers of people. But Shapir argued that their potency is not really greater than conventional weapons.

IDF Home Front Command drills “If you do the analysis, you find out that chemical weapons are not more lethal than conventional weapons. A bomb can explode and kill 120 people in an apartment building…They [chemical weapons] can cause damage, but you don’t wipe [out] a whole country with chemical weapons,” said Shapir, who did not go into detail about the Iraqi massacre, which did involve bombings. He said that, on average, a bomb with one ton of Sarin is as lethal as a bomb with one ton of high explosives. He noted, “Chemical weapons poison them and they die in terrible agony, but who am I to say that one death is worse than another death?”

Essentially, it’s one more terrifying tool in the hands of dangerous enemies. And its greatest impact is just that—a psychological terror weapon. Said Shapir of a chemical weapon attack on Israel, “The psychological effect on the population would be very high.” And the proof is in the ramifications.

Shapir noted that in the event of an attack, Israel would feel the need to respond “very seriously” and send a message that they will never allow such an attack in order to reestablish their deterrence. And CNN reported that in October the US had sent troops to Jordan to help monitor Syria’s weapons. “The psychological effects and perceptions are very important in this. They are perceived as a much worse weapon than [almost] any other kind of weapon.”

The Verdict

IDF Home Front Command drills While the death toll might compare to that from a bomb or rocket attack, the psychological impact of chemical weapons cannot be underestimated. An entire war in Iraq was launched mostly over chemical weapons. Iran to this day still sorely remembers the chemical weapons attacks from Iraq, which happened nearly three decades ago. The Japanese attacks made headlines in the 1990s and still stand out today. Jordan, Israel, and the US have been very concerned about the status of the weapons in Syria. In other words, these weapons traumatize not only their victims, but the psychology of nations. And should these weapons reach international terrorists capable of using them, the impact could prove a major one. It’s how and why terrorism is so diabolically effective.

Horrific symptoms and illness ranging from vomiting to blindness and death by severe burns or suffocation—all are packed into every chemical shell or warhead. They may not kill as many people as nuclear weapons do, and therefore they don’t deserve as much attention, but chemical weapons are awful, vicious weapons. The world should therefore seek to prevent awful, vicious people from using them. If necessary, the West should be ready to take the high ground on this issue, lest civilians need to flee to higher ground over a failure to act.

Source: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

Search Dispatch Articles

  • Order

Current Issue