The Legacy of Nerve Agents: New Developments in Chemical Disarmament
Like the intrusive thoughts we all allegedly have about gladiators, the ever-present threat of chemical warfare rarely escapes our purview.
Ideally though, like most threats to our families and loved ones, if we could snap our fingers and make bad things go away–it’d be done in a heartbeat.
Imagine a world, for instance, where nerve agents and mobile game ads just didn’t exist–finally, a semblance of peace.
Well, allow us the honor of informing you of a momentous achievement: the world has been declared free of chemical weapons. (Unfortunately, the scourge of terrible mobile game ads continues, however.)
How can this be? It seems awfully sudden, after all. So if this sounds like a “We did it, Reddit!” moment, it’s because… well, much like reading “paraben-free” on your shampoo, some explanation is needed.
Essentially, this past July, the United States was the final country to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal–following other countries that were participating in the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty. This treaty, as you may have guessed, aimed to eliminate all chemical weapons–and it has succeeded.
Now, it’s important to note here that that hollow feeling you may be experiencing–the “I know better than that” nerve–isn’t out of place in this instance.
Granted, these developments are certainly to be celebrated, as this is one of the most significant achievements in the pursuit of peace, ever.
However, and say it with me: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Though we’ll get into digesting the latter, let’s first discuss the significance of chemical weapons, the hazards that they present, the details of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the controversy surrounding the historical usage of the phalanx maneuver–maybe.
Close enough. (Image courtesy of Chaiwat Subprasom, Courtesy of Reuters)
Table of Contents
Identify The Threat
Chemical Weapons: The Ethics
The Fine Print
USA and CWA
“Free” From Chemical Weapons?
Frequently Asked Questions
Identify The Threat
Chemical exposure is a nasty way to go, to say the least. In this vein, various chemical agents can be deployed to cause massive destruction or destabilize an enemy. Ranging from nerve agents like VX and sarin gas to blister agents like mustard gas and lewisite, chemical weapons come in various shapes and sizes.
Chemical weapons collage. (Image courtesy of Shuttersock/Khen Guan Toh)
Though we’ve discussed the topic at great length in the past, let’s recap: Nerve agents attack our bodies by disrupting our physiological functions. These weapons either block or stimulate nerves–resulting in a “short-circuiting” of our normal processes. From seizures to respiratory arrest, they guarantee suffering.
Blister agents, meanwhile, prey on our skin and mucous membranes. Exposure results in painful fluid-filled pockets on the skin, irritation of the eyes and lungs, and violent nausea. Put simply–these chemical agents assault our exposed areas with terrible accuracy.
Examples of blister agents: Mustard gas, lewisite.
Next is blood agents, which creep into our veins, causing Knockdown Syndrome. Anemia and gastrointestinal hemorrhage soon follow as the agents ravage blood cells, tearing us apart from the inside out. Ultimately, our blood dies–cells lose the ability to carry oxygen–depriving us of life.
Examples of blood agents: Arsine, cyanide.
Last is choking agents, also commonly known as pulmonary agents. This ominously titled category is divided into two subgroups: Type 1 and Type 2.
-Type 1 Agents inflame and choke our major airways.
-Type 2 Agents attack smaller structures, like our lung’s alveoli.
Both, in the end, ensure suffocation through irritation and collapse of our breathing framework, denying our bodies of oxygen–choking us.
Examples of choking agents: Chlorine gas, phosgene.
At this point, you may well be wondering: How can these weapons of untold suffering be deployed? Well, depending on the target, its defenses, and the most permeable vector, a bad actor has a few routes to choose from:
Misting and aerosolizing devices can be used to spread gasses or vapor throughout buildings or into open-air properties like parks or concerts.
Passive release deployment involves an inconspicuous container filled with an agent, to hopefully be ignored, while it leaks caustic fumes into a target space.
Liquids can be leaked into a food or water supply–to devastating effect on an unsuspecting population.
Sabotage of chemical production or storage facilities ensures a catastrophe for the surrounding environment and its inhabitants.
Bombs, missiles, or other explosive weapons expedite and spread harmful chemicals while delivering collateral destruction in their wake.
Significantly, the 1925 Geneva Protocol recognized the cruelty of these weapons and called for their barment from conventional warfare. Then, decades later, the Chemical Weapons Convention strengthened this call to humanity–encouraging disarmament beginning in 1993.
Chemical Weapons: The Ethics
It makes sense that the global community has made great strides to remove these compounds from our planet. Basic human empathy, after all, speaks to the ethical implications of chemical weapons; no one with a clear heart and conscience could argue their use as appropriate.
This is because chemical weapons are hard to control, difficult to use concisely, and almost always hurt unintended targets. Ergo, even if they are used against lawful targets, the risk of collateral splash damage negates any advantage they may provide.
Syrian child injured by chemical weapons in Douma, 2018. (Image courtesy of Andolu/Getty)
The Law of Armed Conflict speaks to this, as it clearly outlines that a tenet of warfighting is to minimize suffering in conflict. Being that chemical weapons maximize suffering, they are incompatible with the U.S.’s ability to conduct humane, ethical, and proportional combat operations.
So, with that in mind, the world disposed of these heinous weapons. But to see how we came to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Geneva Protocol, we must first understand what drove global leaders to advocate for change.
“Thinking about them at least once a day.” (Image courtesy of ZDF Studios)
Chemical warfare can be traced back to the first recorded use of chemical weapons, in 590 BCE.
No, I’m serious. Greeks poisoned the water source of a city called Kirrha, using a plant called hellebore. This resulted in extreme nausea and illness, allowing the Greeks to capture the city with ease.
Then, in 256 CE, a Roman fort known as Dura-Europos was laid to siege by the Sasnian Persians. 1600 years later, researchers would find traces of yellow sulfur crystals inside a tomb of nineteen soldiers from the harrowing event. This evidence, significantly, suggests the deployment of a deadly gas weapon to bring Dura-Europos to its demise.
Yet while there are many examples of ancient deployment of chemical weapons, they pale in comparison to more modern weaponry.
World War I, notably, was the first conflict to involve widespread and wanton chemical attacks. As such, April 22, 1915 marks the day the world would see the horrible power of chemical weapons.
It began in the early evening, when German forces on the perimeter of Ypres, Belgium, would open the valves of over 6,000 steel cylinders filled with death.
Consequently, 160 tons of chlorine gas was dropped into French trenches, spreading clouds of foggy mist amongst unsuspecting soldiers. The combatants that day, it must be stressed, stood no chance of countering a chemical threat. As such, over 1,000 French and Algerian soldiers lost their lives, while over 4,000 were injured.
A report of the day contained this recounting:
“...Greenish-gray clouds swept down upon them, turning yellow as they traveled over the country blasting everything they touched and shriveling up the vegetation. . . . Then there staggered into our midst French soldiers, blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple color, lips speechless with agony, and behind them in the gas soaked trenches, we learned that they had left hundreds of dead and dying comrades.”
At the time, commands struggled to find a solution to counter these gas attacks, though many valiant attempts were made. The British, for instance, developed a wool hood soaked in a chemical mix that was meant to serve as a barrier, dubbing it the hypo helmet.
Looking at a makeshift gas mask such as this from today’s perspective, one can only feel ever so sorry for those poor men serving. The effectiveness of this hood, after all, was mixed, and therefore not widely appreciated.
About three years later, in 1918, the U.S. moved to use mustard gas offensively. Shortly thereafter, American forces found favorability in lewisite, which disperses quickly and is difficult to detect. The instant blistering the agent causes, and ten-minute lethality, made it the logical–if not ethical–choice as an offensive weapon.
Combatants, however, were not the only ones affected by chemical agents. On both sides of the war, industrial plant workers were subjected to chemical exposure and hazardous working conditions, particularly those toiling in chemical weapons facilities.
In the end, it is estimated that during WWI, nearly 1.3 million casualties could be attributed directly to chemical weapons. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that the world came together and denounced the use of chemical agents in warfare.
The Fine Print
The first chemical disarmament agreement was in 1675, between… wait. France and Germany? This treaty, notably, was drafted to ban the use of poison bullets, not poison gas–guess the fine print does matter.
The 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, meanwhile, outlined a fairly clear and concise idea: “No use of poison or poisoned weapons.” Clearly, the Germans saw this stop sign and promptly performed a rolling stop before making a hard right turn onto War Crime Avenue.
Post WWI, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 was born of necessity. Spearheaded by the French, a whopping thirty-eight countries signed on to the agreement. Yet while the protocol bans the use of all “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gasses, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices" and "bacteriological methods of warfare,” it has a critical failure in its text.
The protocol does not prohibit the production or storage of chemical weaponry.
Luckily, the Biological Weapons Convention, which sought to supplement the Geneva Protocol, was introduced in 1969. A few years later, in 1972, it was opened for signatures, where it received support from 183 state parties. This treaty went into effect in 1975.
Though nuanced, the key takeaway from the Biological Weapons Convention is that this treaty clearly outlined the ban imposed on the production, stockpiling, development, or retention of biological weapons.
At this point, you may be noticing a keyword missing from the Biological Weapons Convention: “chemical”. While this is addressed in later articles of the treaty, it falls into an odd aspect of treaties called the “general-purpose criterion.”
Of course, we won’t get too lost in the weeds with treaty writing, but essentially, the general-purpose criterion is a way to set a broad standard. This did create some issues with regulation and inspection, so… we needed the most current iteration of weapons treaties: The Chemical Weapons Convention.
'Murica. (Image courtesy of PEO ACWA Channel on YouTube)
The Chemical Weapons Convention was set in 1993. Think of this agreement as the “third time’s the charm,” as it laid down the law and sealed it airtight. Consequently, 193 states hopped on board, and so began the three-decade long journey to a chemical-weapon-free world.
Paraphrased, it said: “Get rid of all your weapons, make them gone—no ifs, ands, or buts.”
Presumably, Syria raised its hand and asked, “Okay but like, when you say all… can you clarify?”
Speaking of which, it may not shock you to know Syria, China, Burma, and Iran are non-compliant with the treaty. So can we truly say the world is free of chemical weapons? Honestly, probably not.
Even treaties, after all, can’t pause mankind’s lust for war. Remember: Germany signed three whole treaties and then gassed people anyway.
All that to say, do these treaties matter? The threat remains, regardless.
However, in a world so rife with turbulence, one must accept that there is only one locus of control that we can rely on: ourselves. In this context, “we” as in the United States. We complied, got rid of our weapons, and now we’re the good guys. That’s a win.
It’s a weird win though, given that we came in last place technically. But, if Ender’s Game taught us anything, winning at any cost isn’t sufficient: “The way we win matters.”
So with that in mind, how did we win?
USA and CWA
The U.S.’s journey to disarmament was a long road–beginning with chemical weapon production starting in 1914. WWI, after all, required an astounding amount of research and defensive development. All said and done, over 2,500 tons of chemical weapons were produced.
Unfortunately, the U.S. would continue to develop and store more chemical weapons throughout WWII–creating another 150,000 tons of product. This persisted into the Cold War.
But let’s back up a moment. During the second World War, the U.S. had some less than fantastic methods of disposing of its expired or surplus chemical munitions. Thinking back on it, one can only express awe at the confidence of 1940s-era Americans and their cocksure assumptions that if you can’t see something–it doesn’t exist anymore.
Try that with Sallie Mae in 2023.
But we digress. During WWII, sea disposal was a popular method, requiring water at least 300 ft deep and 10 miles from shore. This, to the surprise of no one, would later turn out to be a horrible idea. The chemicals, after all, would be retrieved by fishermen, or wash up on shore and cause accidental neglectful exposure.
UXO at the bottom of the ocean near a former U.S. Navy bombing range, 2003. (Image courtesy of James Porter, University of Georga via Floridatoday)
Significantly, this would continue until 1969, when someone finally stumbled upon the concept of object permanence–the chemical weapons were still around, even though they couldn’t see them. We thank whoever this person was, and remember them fondly, as they were almost certainly stoned to death for their blasphemy.
Moving on, the U.S. decided to shift its focus to losing developing nuclear weapons and pushing chemical weapons to the wayside. Thankfully, this time, they went back for the weapons and properly disposed of them via incineration and neutralization. As such, in 1970, around 7000 tons of weapons were deactivated.
Fast forward to 1984, at the Blue Grass Army Depot. Officials proposed disposing of mustard and nerve munitions by burning them. Some (wise) people felt that wasn’t the best option, so they lobbied to neutralize the chemical agents instead. Neutralization, after all, is the safest–albeit relatively slower–disposal method.
Later, in 1993, the U.S. signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and promptly began dismantling its remaining arsenal.
This brings us to today–2023–when we completed this arduous task, and the world claimed victory.
Not the cleanest record, but you know who else didn’t have the cleanest record of waste and pollution and was still great? You already know where this link goes.
“Free” From Chemical Weapons?
Of the 190 signatory nations to the Chemical Weapons Convention, all participated and completed their agreements.
And as previously mentioned, four countries politely asked to be excused from the global lunch table. With that said, they are not the only countries that didn’t feel like being in the cool kids club.
Along with Russia, China, Burma, and Syria, there are three other countries–Egypt, South Sudan, North Korea–that are considered to possibly be armed with chemical weapons. Now, if you’re wondering how anyone is claiming the world is chemical weapon-free with countries like North Korea still around, it falls to some of that fine print we talked about.
If a country didn’t sign the treaty, then it can’t be verified. Besides, it’s not like they would declare their weapons. Egypt is a great example; they straight up said, “No.” This is because they object to Israel having nuclear weapons.
News article excerpt outlines Egypt’s non-compliance, 1993. (Image courtesy of Brian Benoit via Readex )
So, there remains a handful of countries that may still possess, create, and use chemical weapons. Who’s to say they can’t sell them to bad actors that operate quietly in other countries?
And, if they do, what do you need to be ready?
Let freedom ring. (Image courtesy of IEM)
It goes without saying: Thank God we’re moving towards a world without chemical weapons.
While we may not be able to ever truly sleep on the threat, we must recognize and take pride in the countries that complied.
Yet while the world celebrates the disarmament of chemical weapons, it is important to make a critical note: that chemicals remain a threat whether they’re weaponized or not. After all, there’s always another threat just around the corner, and sometimes right next door.
But while the world may always be a harrowing space to occupy, MIRA Safety is ready to provide the highest quality equipment to keep you and your loved ones out of harm's way. Whether at home or abroad, our line of world-class gear is guaranteed to see you through any potential threat.
CM-6M Gas Mask
Whether facing a nerve agent, choking agent, blood agent, or blister agent, the MIRA Safety CM-6M Tactical Gas Mask offers unparalleled protection. Rated for a wide spectrum of chemical, biological, and nuclear threats, you can rest easy knowing your gas mask will be ready for the next twenty years of shelf life. So whenever the threat presents itself, you’ll know that you’re protected.
Gas mask parts kit
Of course, it’s not enough to be ready–you’ve got to be ready and stocked. Thankfully, the MIRA Safety Gas Mask Replacement Parts Kit has all of the essentials any savvy survivalist needs to keep their gear well-maintained. Most importantly, it contains all of the vital internal parts that make your MIRA Safety Gas Mask of choice function reliably. Never find yourself needing a resupply AFTER SHTF with this all-inclusive parts kit.
Naturally, the lynchpin of any bug-out bag is the CBRN Gas Mask Filter NBC-77 SOF. Offering protection from all known CBRN agents, you’ll be operating in safety and breathing easy. That's because the 40mm NATO threads ensure superior compatibility with a wide variety of equipment, and the twenty-year shelf brings surety to match.
CBRN detection strips
If you’re preparing for a showdown with a potential nerve gas, you need to stock your kit with the MIRA Safety DETEHIT CWD-3 CBRN Detection Strips. In order to counter a threat, after all, we must first identify it. With a rapid detection time of two to three minutes, your detection strips will have you ready to hunker down or double-time in no time. Use these strips to detect nerve agents in your air, water, or food supply, and take action appropriately.
So here we are. The world is “free” of chemical weapons. To us though, we know that the threat is only ever countered–rarely defeated. That doesn’t discourage us though–we’re made of tougher stuff than that. MIRA Safety is here for you, and it’s here for the fight.
But before we conclude, we would be remiss to not draw a striking parallel: The U.S. as Vulcan, The Roman God of Fire. The skilled forge master who developed Zeus’ lightning bolts and a variety of other powerful weaponry.
"Hope always comes after evil has done its work. We cannot keep living on hope, though.” - Erik Pevernagie (Image courtesy of Medium)
Yet so too, did Vulcan create Pandora–spelling disaster for the world.
By destroying our chemical weapons stockpile, we have seemingly done the impossible–we have closed Pandora’s Box. The myth states, though, that left within Pandora’s Box was left one thing: Hope.
A common interpretation of this precarious ending is that hope is the ultimate evil. An illusion of safety and comfort–a false sense of security. To lure us into contentment, and bring on complacency in order to disarm our attention.
To prey upon those who would assume safety–naively–without verifying.
Do we find ourselves in such a predicament? Perhaps time will tell. Until then, we deny such wide-eyed comforts; we stay prepared.
Frequently Asked Questions
Mustard gas, or sulfur mustard, is an engineered chemical warfare agent. Mustard gas begins as an oily amber liquid. This blister agent is commonly referred to as a gas, but in weaponized form, it is deployed as a fine mist of liquid particulates. This is why mustard gas will be heavier than air, and float low to the ground. In high amounts, mustard gas in high amounts is reported to smell like horseradish, onions, or garlic.
Mustard gas, being a blister agent, will attack exposed skin and mucous membranes. Fluid-filled pockets can form on the skin, causing immense pain and irritation. Similar to chemical burns, the affected areas will often become itchy and highly susceptible to infection. When exposed to our eyes, mustard gas can cause temporary or permanent blindness, starting with ocular ulcers and eye scarring.
The long-term effects of mustard gas exposure are serious and chronic. Skin exposure will result in permanent scarring, pigment changes, and a higher likelihood of skin cancer complications. Additionally, exposure to mucous membranes can cause loss of taste, smell, and vision. Mustard gas exposure carries a life-long chance of respiratory disease and infection, as well as malignant tumors.
Nerve gas is a form of dispensing nerve agents. Aerosolized, these agents will interrupt the human body’s normal physiology. More specifically, nerve gas will either block or overstimulate the body’s normal functions, such as blocking certain respiratory nerves, or overstimulating the salivary glands to block airways.
Sarin gas is an extreme risk to homeostasis (life). Sarin gas induces extreme sweating and muscle twitching upon first contact. Following suit, cardiac and respiratory organs begin to experience interruptions in their natural rhythm. This leads to convulsions, respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, stroke, paralysis, and coma/seizures.
VX Gas (short for “venomous agent x”) is an extremely toxic nerve agent. VX has a low volatility in liquid form, allowing it to stay harmful even hours or days after deployment. VX presents as an oily, amber-like liquid, with no odor or smell. Exposure to VX is followed by intense nausea, extreme mucus overproduction, and airway constriction. The first common symptom of exposure is pinpoint pupils and shortness of breath.