With the centenary of the start of the First World War reminding us of the way in which poison gases have been deployed in warfare to such devastating effect, what role do chemists today have to play in eliminating the continued risk to human wellbeing posed by chemical agents?
Chemicals as a weapon of war
Chemistry has always, and probably always will, be put to the service of those who wish death and misery on other humans. From poison arrows used since prehistory to the nerve agents deployed by terrorists and renegade governments in recent times, history is littered with examples of chemicals being used for nefarious aims.
But what is it about chemical warfare agents (or CWAs) in particular that causes such revulsion? It must be something deeply ingrained, because agreements to curb use of chemicals in this way isn’t a modern phenomenon – for example,France and the Holy Roman Empire agreed in 1675 to limit the use of chemical bullets, fully two centuries before The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 required signatories to “abstain from the use of projectiles the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases”. Not that this did much to stop their use in the First World War – the so-called ‘chemist’s war’ – where chemicals deployed by both sides,including mustard gas and phosgene, killed more than 90,000 men and left over ten times that number permanently disabled.
The resulting public outcry led to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, but although this prohibited use of chemical agents in war, it did nothing to prevent manufacture, which continued in secret right up to the 1990s, with ever more obnoxious chemicals such as the nerve agents sarin and VX – and ways of deploying them – being devised.
Since then, all but six nations have ratified the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which aims to completely eliminate the possibility of chemical weapons being used. However, the threat of chemicals being used as agents of death remains – as illustrated by the actions of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s, by Japanese terrorists in 1994 and 1995, and most recently by Syria’s Assad regime in August 2013, where sarin was used to kill thousands.
But going back to my question, what makes chemical agents so uniquely unacceptable to us, even though they have killed a fraction of the many millions that have been killed in war and elsewhere by so-called ‘conventional’ means?
Perhaps it is the random way that chemical weapons are used – even today, farmers on the old Western Front are occasionally hospitalised or even killed by ploughing up unexploded ordnance from the First World War. In this regard chemical agents are like landmines and nuclear bombs, with their effects persisting down the decades to those not even born at the time of the hostilities.
On the other hand, perhaps it is their capability to cause lasting misery by permanently disabling rather than by killing outright that makes them unacceptable to us? My own great-grandfather was gassed in the First World War, to die 20 years later from the damage inflicted on his lungs by chlorine.
Both of these factors come into play, I believe, but perhaps more than these, it is the instinctive feeling that directing the line of scientific enquiry to devise ever more lethal ways to kill people, as well as being profoundly unethical, is fundamentally against the spirit of science itself.
So although the burden of responsibility for killing people with chemicals lies with politicians for getting us into wars, sponsoring the development of these weapons and sanctioning their use, chemists are hardly absolved of blame. Consider for a moment how many lives would not have been pointlessly wasted if the chemists of IG Farben and arguably well-intentioned but fundamentally misguided people like Fritz Haber and Gerhard Schrader had not used their scientific expertise to develop these chemical agents in the first place.
A poisonous legacy
That’s all in the past, you might argue, and the advent of international treaties against chemical weapons means that there’s no longer any danger of history repeating itself. The world has certainly changed, that much is true, but the legacy of chemical agents remains, and takes two forms. The first is the decades-long task of decommissioning historical weapons stockpiles and associated military hardware. The second task is to prevent terrorists from using chemical agents – an ongoing task that will likely need continued vigilance.
Chemistry, and analytical instrumentation in particular, is central to these two tasks, by helping to ensure that we detect chemical agents or their precursors before they can be used to cause harm. The work we do at Markes, in developing instrumentation and expertise for these applications, is therefore essential – and a small but significant contribution to ensuring that this centenary of the start of the First World War also marks the beginning of the end of chemical agents’ toxic legacy.
You can read a history of chemical weapons and their disarmament at the website of the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons).
This open-access article in the American Journal of Public Health covers chemical warfare and the medical response during the First World War.
This BBC article from January 2014 summarises knowledge of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.