HomeBanned: World's Most Deadly Chemical Weapons of War

Banned: World’s Most Deadly Chemical Weapons of War

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Chemical weapons have killed over a million people globally since World War I.

In a conflict, not everything happens as planned. Even in the middle of barbarism, such as the one currently occurring in Ukraine, there remain norms, regulations that define what may and cannot be done.

These are incorporated into a body of law known as International Humanitarian Law, which is dedicated to mitigating the effects of armed wars.

Thus, the tools and methods of warfare that can be used during a conflict are defined, always with two guiding principles in mind: weaken the opponent rather than destroy it, and minimize suffering.

As a result, even the use of some weapons is forbidden. Let us not forget that, since the 19th century, larger and better-equipped militaries have caused greater harm and killed more soldiers and civilians.

As a result, the international community has attempted to establish a set of regulations to limit a war’s weaponry. Chemical weapons or biological weapons are outlawed by the Geneva Convention of 1925 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.

Biological or Chemical weapons

According to the United Nations, the modern use of chemical weapons originated during the First World War, when both sides utilized poison gas to inflict severe pain and significant casualties on the battlefield. Such weapons were mainly made up of conventional ordnance like grenades and artillery rounds that had been infused with well-known commercial poisons. Chlorine, phosphene, and mustard gas were among the substances employed. Around 100,000 people died as a result of the disaster. Chemical weapons have killed over 1 million people globally since the first world war.

With the signing of the Geneva Protocol in 1925, chemical weapons were outlawed. Some states that ratified the Protocol, on the other hand, reserved the right to employ prohibited weapons against countries that had not signed it. Poisonous gases were employed in Nazi concentration camps and in Asia during World War II.

During the Cold War, there was a noticeable increase in the invention, manufacturing, and storage of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons have, however, been used in a few instances since World War II, most notably in Iraq in the 1980s against the Islamic Republic of Iran and, more recently, in the Syrian civil war.

Nerve gases, the most lethal

Nerve gases are the most potent and deadliest chemical agents known, second only to cyanide. According to Sharon Ruetter of the US Army’s Edgewood Center for Biological Chemistry in Maryland, a single inhalation of these substances can cause death.

Novichok 5

In the late 1970s, Russian researchers were responsible for one of the most devastating chemical weapons ever created. Novichok is one of the most potent nerve agents in the organophosphorus family, with physical properties that are considerably different from those of ordinary chemicals. Novichok 5, for example, one of the most lethal, is a very thin powder that may be easily transported.

It is a binary weapon, meaning gas masks are ineffective against it, and it is the one used in the attempt on the life of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

Its effects cause continued muscle contraction until it ends up producing a cardiac arrest that causes death.

Although there is no official confirmation, it is said that it has been used in Afghanistan, in the 1980s, and in Chechnya.

VX – one of the most toxic

VX is an organophosphorus substance that is categorized as a nerve agent because it interferes with nerve impulse transmission in the neurological system. In its purest form, it is odorless and tasteless, and it looks as a brownish greasy liquid.

VX was developed in the UK in the early 1950s and is particularly potent since it is a persistent agent that takes a long time to evaporate once released into the atmosphere. VX can linger for days on surfaces in normal weather conditions, but it can last for months in extreme cold. “VX vapor is heavier than air,” which means that when it is discharged, it will sink to low-lying areas and pose a larger risk of exposure there.  As a result of these qualities, VX could be helpful as an area-denial weapon.

VX is a fast-acting agent as well. After only a few seconds of exposure, symptoms can occur. Salivation, constriction of the pupils, and chest tightness are among them. VX operates by disrupting the enzyme (acetylcholinesterase), which acts as the body’s ‘off switch’ for glands and muscles, similar to other nerve agents. Molecules constantly excite the muscles while the enzyme is inhibited. The muscles weary as they spasm. Asphyxiation or heart failure are the two main causes of death. While it is possible to recover from exposure to the agent, even little doses of it can be fatal.

In a gaseous state, it is more lethal than in a liquid state.

Sarin

Sarin (also known as GB) is a highly poisonous nerve toxin that is highly volatile. A single drop the size of a pinhead is enough to quickly kill an adult human. At ambient temperature, it is a colorless, odorless liquid that quickly evaporates when heated. Sarin will quickly spread into the surroundings after being released, posing an acute but transient threat. “Symptoms include headaches, salivation, and tear secretion, followed by progressive muscle paralysis” and possible death, similar to VX.

Sarin was created in 1938 in Germany as part of a pesticide research project. It was utilized by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in a 1995 train attack in Tokyo. Despite the fact that the attack provoked widespread terror, only 13 people were killed since the toxin was disseminated in liquid form. Sarin must be a gas, and the particles must be small enough to be easily absorbed through the lining of the lungs, but heavy enough to not be breathed back out, in order to maximize deaths. Sarin is a difficult substance to weaponize.

Also, the agent’s quality is critical. Degradation of Sarin (and VX) is a problem, especially if it is not pure. Sarin, for example, had a shelf life of one to two years in Iraq. The deteriorated compounds are still hazardous, but they can no longer be utilized as weapons. Despite the fact that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was getting old and the agents were likely to have degraded dramatically, the sarin used in the August 21, 2013 attack on the Ghouta suburbs was of greater quality than that used in the 1995 Tokyo incident or in Halabja. However, it was still a long way from the sarin developed by the US and the Soviet Union.

Most dangerous: Phosgene

To this day, phosgene is regarded as one of the most deadly chemical weapons in existence. On December 19, 1915, it was first used in conjunction with chlorine gas, when Germany dropped 88 tons of the gas on British forces, resulting in 120 deaths and 1069 injuries. During World War I, it was responsible for 80% of all chemical deaths. It’s not as toxic as sarin or VX, but it’s a lot easier to create, making it more available to everyone.

Phosgene is a chemical that is used in the manufacturing of polymers and insecticides. Chlorinated hydrocarbon molecules are exposed to high temperatures to create it. In other words, by exposing chloroform to UV radiation for a few days, it can be manufactured at home.

Phosgene is a choking agent that operates by damaging lung tissue. Coughing, choking, chest tightness, nausea, and even vomiting are the most common symptoms minutes after exposure. This may appear to be a short process, but it actually means that sufferers continue to inhale the substance until symptoms appear. Effects can take up to 48 hours to manifest following exposure.

It’s a nearly colorless gas that smells like freshly cut grass in low quantities at room temperature and pressure. It’s nonflammable and volatile, evaporating at temperatures over eight degrees. However, because its vapor density is more than three times that of air, it will remain in low-lying locations, such as trenches.

One of most popular: Mustard Gas

This chemical, often known as sulphur mustard, gets its name from the rotten mustard or garlic and onion odor it emits. It’s one of the blister agents (or vesicants) that function by irrigating and subsequently poisoning the body’s cells by attacking the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin. It’s especially gory and slow-moving. When it comes into contact with the skin, it reddens and burns for a few hours until enormous blisters form, causing significant scarring and discomfort. Sneezing, hoarseness, coughing up blood, abdominal pain, and vomiting will occur a few hours after exposure, and victims will experience sneezing, hoarseness, coughing up blood, abdominal pain, and vomiting if inhaled or eaten.

There are two types of mustard gas:

  • Sulfur mustard: Its name is due to its characteristic smell of rotten mustard. It is a very irritating and poisonous chemical compound capable of causing painful ulcers.
  • Nitrogen mustard. Initially this substance was created for medical purposes. However, due to its toxicity, it was used as a chemical weapon, which affects the digestive and respiratory systems. In very serious cases it can cause death.

However, mustard gas exposure is not always fatal. Only 5% of individuals who were exposed to it died when it was initially employed in WW1. Because of its qualities, it became a popular chemical weapon that was employed in both world wars, as well as during the Yemeni civil war and the Iran-Iraq war.

Mustard gas is chemically stable and long-lasting, in addition to its horrible physical effects. Its vapors are more than six times heavier than air and last for several hours near the ground. It was especially beneficial for filling and infecting opposing trenches because of this. Under normal temperature conditions, it is harmful for a day or two, but under extreme cold, it might last weeks or months. Furthermore, the agent’s persistency can be improved by “thickening” it by dissolving it in nonvolatile liquids. It presents considerable challenges in terms of security, decontamination, and treatment.

With easily available early precursors, mustard gas is quite simple to make. It also lasts a long time and maintains its quality. For example, World War II German weapons are still dug up in Belgium on a regular basis, and the agents are barely degraded.

Mustard gas requires enemy troops to wear full protective gear, reducing their effectiveness. However, the protective equipment may not always operate. Gas masks, for example, are frequently insufficient. Mustard gas poured through the masks during the Iran-Iraq conflict because young Iranians’ beards (growing for religious reasons) disrupted the seal. Mustard gas is also easily absorbed by clothing, shoes, and other things.

Now, in the midst of the conflict in Ukraine, the White House believes that Russia may try to use chemical or biological weapons in the European country, and attributes to this possibility the fact that the Kremlin recently circulated false information about alleged covert United States laboratories in the invaded country.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday that Russia “definitely has the capability” to use chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine.

Image Credit: Getty

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