Everyone’s been scared of a sudden breakout of war at some point of their lives. And here we are with nations trying their best to prevent the beginning of world war 3. Recently, there has been speculation that Russia can soon use chemical weapons on Ukraine. So what are chemical weapons? Why is there an outcry amongst nations for the use of chemical weapons by Russia?
A chemical weapon is a chemical used to cause death or harm through the toxic properties it displays. Any forms of equipment that are specifically designed to weaponise toxic chemicals also fall under the definition of chemical weapons. When people imagine any form of weapons they think of bombs and artillary weapons. This is however a very small portion of ‘chemical weapons’ that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prohibits.
The definition of chemical weapons in three parts:
Toxic chemicals and their precursors
These are defined as any chemicals which through the chemical action of life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals
This definition includes all chemicals regardless of their origin, method of production, whether they are produced in facilities or elsewhere. The precursors are also prohibited, these are the chemicals that are used for the production of toxic chemicals.
Munitions or devices
Any munitions or devices that are specifically designed to inflict harm or cause death through the release of toxic chemicals. These could include artillery shells, missiles, bombs and spray tanks.
Equipment directly in connection with munitions and devices
Any equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with the employment of chemical weapons.
Different types of chemical weapons:
- Riot Control Agents
A riot control agent is any chemical that produces sensory irritation or disabling physical effects rapidly in humans which disappear within a short time following termination or exposure
- Chemical Weapon Components
Chemical components, whether assembled or separate, are stored together or separately. A toxic chemical and delivery system may be stored separately but is still considered as a full chemical weapon under the convention of the CWC
Any chemical reaction which takes part in the production of a toxic chemical. This includes any key component of a multicomponent chemical system
Dual use describes chemicals or equipment that can be used for peaceful civilian and commercial purposes, but also in the creations of weapons for mass destruction too. A good example is actually pen ink.
The CWC prohibits the use of herbicides as a method of warfare. However, herbicides are not explicitly stated as unusable under the Convention, surprisingly. Herbicides that are intentionally used to harm humans or animals through chemical action on life processes could be considered as a chemical weapon under the criteria. This is why there is some contradiction with regards to using this for it’s normal purposes too.
- Central Nervous system (CNS) acting chemicals
Central nervous system acting chemicals, also known as chemical agents, are referred to as incapacitating chemical agents (ICAs). These aren’t defined or mentioned by name in the Convention. However, the main definition of a chemical weapon does include any use of chemical that may cause ‘temporary incapacitation’.
Toxins can be toxic chemicals produced by living organisms, such as bacteria. These can be considered as both chemical and biological weapons when used in violation of the Conventions. The development, stockpiling and production of such agents are prohibited by both the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the CWC.
It is actually also possible to synthesise many types of toxins within laboratories without harvesting the organisms that produce them in nature. A number of toxins are also synthetic dual-use chemicals. This means they can also be used for legitimate and good purposes too.
What are the different types of chemical agents?
- Choking agents
These were first employed by the German Army and then later by the Allied Forces during World War One. The first event where choking agents were used when Germans released chlorine gas from thousands of cylinders along 6km from Ypres, in Belgium. This created a cloud of chemical gas in the air that opened a major breach for the unprepared soldiers of France and Algeria.
Eventually all countries realised the trick of using choking agents, not only including chlorine but substances such as phosgene, diphosgene, chloropicrin, ethyl chorasine and perfluoroisobutylene. Phosgene was responsible for 80% of all casualties caused by chemical arms during WW1.
Choking agents are delivered as gas clouds to target areas where individuals die through the inhalation of the vapour. The toxic agent triggers an immune response, causing a buildup of fluid in the lungs, through which death can be caused due to the insufficient absorption of oxygen or due to eventual lung failure. The effect can act immediately or within 3 hours. A good protective gas mask is actually the best form of defence against such choking agents.
- Blister Agents
Blister agents were also developed and deployed during world war one. The primary form of blister gas that was used was actually mustard gas. Casualties were inflicted when soldiers were attacked and exposed to blister agents. These weapons can finalise to burn skin, eyes, windpipe and even lungs. Physical results depend on the level of exposure, which might be immediate or might occur after several hours. Protection against blister agents requires an effective gas mask and protective overgarments.
- Blood agents
Blood agents include cyanide and cyanogen chloride, which are designed to be delivered to the targeted area in the form of a vapour. After inhalation these agents prevent the transport of oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, leading to suffocation. These chemicals block the enzyme necessary for aerobic metabolism, which can lead to the same effect as carbon monoxide poisoning. Cyanogen inhibits the utilisation of oxygen within blood cells, causing starvation and damaging of the heart. The best defence against blood agents is an effective gas mask.
- Nerve agents
The most lethal and important chemical weapons contain nerve agents, which affect the transmission of impulses through the nervous system. A single drop that is exposed to skin or inhaled into lungs causes the brain to shut down muscles related to respiration, including the diaphragm and the heart. This ultimately leads to paralysation. Poisoning by such agents causes effects such as sweating, filling of bronchial passages with mucus, dimming of vision, uncontrollable vomiting and defecation, convulsions and paralysis, respiratory failure. Death results from extreme suffocation, generally within hours from the initial exposure to the nerve agent. A skin-tight mask and overprotective garments are required for protection against such nerve gases.
- Riot-control agents
Tear gas and vomiting agents have been produced to control riots and unruly crowds. CN is a principal component of the aerosol agent Mace, which primarily affects the eyes. PS and CS are stronger irritants that burn the skin, eyes and the respiratory tract. These are banned by the CWC but are permitted to use for domestic police enforcement. These substances can actually also be used for situations such as counter terrorist and hostage rescue operations, noncombatant rescue operations outside of war zones and peacekeeping operations.
There have been several international attempts to ban and eventually abolish the usage of chemical weapons. Many people will consider casualties through chemical weapons as emotive, whilst others would say it’s no different than the injuries which are inflicted through chemical agents. If these weapons get in the wrong hands, mass destruction and countless casualties will happen. And as Russia’s war on Ukraine progresses, who knows what will happen?