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Chemical Weapons: What They Are and the Surrounding Debate

Before the idea to produce chemicals to use as a weapon, arrowheads, food and water supplies would be poisoned. The logic behind it? A quick win. Chemical weaponry is an expansion of that logic onto a far larger scale. World War One (WWI) saw the introduction of chemical weapons to the battlefield, at first in the form of French riot control tear gases. It was only in 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, that the Germans launched their first chlorine gas attack. The usual rain of bullets had been replaced by a cloud of greenish-yellow gas. Phosgene and mustard gas were added to the arsenals of both sides, resulting in an estimated 1.3 million casualties. This new weaponry resulted in a changing of how the war was viewed and conducted, a change which still affects our current mode of warfare. But what are these weapons exactly? Generally, a chemical weapon is a toxic chemical usually housed in a form of munition, such as, in a bomb or shell. If the chemical causes anything from death to sensory irritation, it can be considered a weapon, while its container, whether filled or not, are also considered to be so. An empty shell that could possibly contain mustard gas, but doesn’t, is therefore also a chemical weapon.

A problem does arise because the classification of chemical weapons is not always easy. Often such chemicals can be used for peaceful means. Because of this, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), signed in 1993 in Paris and New York, has categorised chemical weapons into three schedules. Schedule 1 includes toxins that have no, or very little, legitimate uses. These are still allowed to be produced under certain circumstances: for medical and pharmaceutical research, and for the development of protection against such toxins. Most nerve agents fall into this category, as well mustard gas, and ricin. Schedule 2 chemicals do have some practical uses, although these are not used in large-scale production. An example of a legitimate use of this class of toxins is a forerunner of sarin (or GB) being used as a flame retardant. Schedule 3 contains chemicals used in large-scale industry. Phosgene, responsible for a significant amount of casualties during WWI, is used as a building block for synthetic products (such as plastic) and pharmaceuticals. Due to its possible use as a chemical weapon, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) must be notified if a certain factory produces more than 30 tonnes of phosgene a year. These schedules do not include riot control agents, tear gases and pepper sprays. These were designed to irritate the eyes, throat, and skin, rather than to incapacitate the receiver. However, this is still sensory irritation, part of the definition of a chemical weapon. Although the intended use of riot agents is clear, it does not mean that large quantities cannot and have not been used in warfare, with more disastrous effects. The OPCW has debated over whether or not riot control agents should be seen as chemical weapons and has come to the compromise that they are intended for law enforcement use only and are, therefore, prohibited in warfare.

Besides the schedules, chemical weapons are also categorised by types: nerve agent, blistering agents, choking agents, cyanides, incapacitating agents, and vomiting agents. Of these, nerve, blistering, and choking agents are the most used in warfare. An example of the first agent would be VX (venomous agent X), a synthetic compound that was specifically designed for chemical warfare. When VX is inhaled or absorbed through the skin, signals between the nerves and the muscles is disrupted, causing paralysis throughout the body, and resulting in seizures or death as one is no longer physically able to breathe. Early symptoms of VX could include, a runny nose, difficulty breathing, the twitching of the muscles around the exposed area, nausea, or vomiting. It is one of the most potent chemical weapons, needing as little as 10mg, absorbed through the skin, to be lethal. A well-known blistering agent, introduced in WWI, would be sulphur mustard, or mustard gas. The name comes from the smell when used in its impure, warfare form; that of mustard plants, garlic, or horseradish. Developed in 1916, mustard gas falls under schedule 1 as it was specifically designed for war and mass-produced for the Imperial German Army. Rather than being administered as a vapour, or gas, mustard gas is more of a mist with tiny droplets. It is these droplets that when brought in contact with the skin or when inhaled, that cause the blistering. However, the effects of mustard gas are not immediate. One could be exposed to a high dosage without realising it, as itching occurs within the first 24 hours, while the blistering is gradual. Mustard gas is lipophilic, meaning that it mixes with fats, making it easier to spread across the skin and mutate. Blistering can also occur in the respiratory system, though this usually only happens at high concentrations. The eyes can also be heavily affected by sulphur mustard. They become sore and develop Pink Eye (an infection of the conjunctiva, or the mucous membrane, which lines the eyelid and surface), followed by a swelling of the eyelids, causing temporary blindness. In rare cases, the eyes obtain permanent damage. Unlike a nerve agent, mustard gas is not as fatal. More than 50% of the skin has to be burned before exposed to mustard gas proves fatal. Even then it takes days or weeks to kill. With less blistering, lengthy medical treatment is needed, and the chances of developing cancer become significantly higher. Although not as deadly as nerve agents, the effects of blistering agents are more lasting and prolong a person’s suffering. Chlorine gas was the first used chemical weapon and can be classified as a choking agent. Due to its many practical uses, such as a cleaning agent for swimming pools, it is a schedule 3 weapon. That makes it rather problematic because of the availability of the chemical. It could be a reason why chlorine gas has been used in Iraq, and allegedly in Syria. However, during WWI, chlorine gas was quickly replaced by phosgene and mustard gas because of their higher death rate. Despite the lower fatality rate, chlorine gas can do some serious damage. When inhaled, chlorine reacts with water in a part of the lungs, creating hydrochloric acid. At low concentrations, breathing becomes irritated, higher concentrations can lead to coughing and vomiting, while at very high concentrations, several breaths could prove fatal. Contrary to other chemical weapons used during WWI, a gas mask with activated charcoal was enough to dilute the gas and significantly reduce its effects. It was also a very visible gas, a green cloud, and had a distinct peppery smell, making it easy for soldiers to apply their gas masks on time. Another choking agent, phosgene, was harder to counteract, as it is more potent than chlorine gas and colourless. Rather than damaging the lungs, as chlorine gas does, phosgene disrupts the passage of air into the blood, causing suffocation. One problem was that the effects of phosgene take longer to manifest, leaving soldiers more capable of direct retaliation.

The Debate The reasoning behind developing chemical weapons was to target a much larger part of the opposing force, having the desired result of a quicker win. However, so far, the use of chemical weapons did not shorten the conflicts in which they were used, rather elongating them, creating deadlock, civilian deaths, and injuries that had never been seen before. The question of whether or not chemical weapons should be used is a very moral one. Their use can be seen as a development of modern warfare; however, it is argued that even in war lines have to be drawn. For many, that line is drawn at chemical weapons. This is partly due to the non-discriminatory nature of toxins. Anyone exposed to the chemicals will experience their effects, regardless of background, gender, race, age, or what side they are on. One of the biggest moral issues with this is that children are often more affected than adults, their immune systems not as well built up, and needing a lower concentration of toxins for it to be lethal. Traditional weapons, such as guns and bombs, are often more localised, being able to take out a single target, without involving civilians. In a terrorist bombing or other terrorist attack using more traditional weapons, collateral damage could also be considered high and non-discriminatory. However, there is a difference in the effects of traditional weapons versus chemical weapons. Often when toxins are used the effects take longer to manifest. A bullet wound is more easily identified and if help is on time, it is possible to save a person. When dealing with a chemical, it is more difficult to observe the effects, more difficult to judge the severity of the contamination, and more difficult to get the appropriate medical help. This causes a prolonged suffering that makes a bullet sound like a kind alternative. It is also that idea of suffering that makes chemical weapons cross the proverbial line. When one imagines being shot, it is not one of the most pleasant things, however, if you would imagine the way blisters would slowly start to spread across your skin, or slowly losing the ability to breathe, or how a seizure could take over your body; it is a fate you would not wish on yourself, let alone anyone else. Only when you do not regard the people you’d used chemical weapons on, as people, can you justify it. Justify it for yourself at least. In that case, a chemical weapon is simply the logical choice in the way war develops. Whether it’s the right choice, is a whole different matter.

Photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash


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