In the midst of a particularly brutal civil war, international attention focused on the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against civilians. With a potential deal on the table for Russia to take and store Syria's chemical weapons, here is a look at what chemical weapons are, and what it takes to safely dispose of them.
What are chemical weapons?
Broadly, a chemical weapon is a toxic chemical delivered by an explosion, such as a bomb, artillery shell, or missile. Chemical weapons injure and kill people through horrific reactions including choking, nerve damage, blood poisoning, and blistering.
The first chemical weapons, used in World War I, were gases released from canisters. Today, chemical weapons are typically liquids carried in bombs or shells. The chemicals, like sulfur mustards (commonly called mustard gas) or sarin, are dispersed in the air like a mist. Technically, this means they aren't gases; they're liquid aerosol, with droplets carried through the air.
When have chemical weapons been used?
World War I saw the first major use of chemical weapons, with 124,000 metric tons of chemical agent unleashed by nations including the UK, Germany, and France.
World War II, Japan used them in China.Before World War II, Italy used chemical weapons in Ethiopia, and during
Throughout the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States developed and stockpiled chemical weapons. While the United States never used them in war, a declassified CIA document alleges Soviet use during their invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Egypt was the first country to use chemical weapons in war after World War II. Egypt joined a civil war in Yemen in 1963, where the Egyptian militarty dropped sulfur mustard bombs on enemy troops sheltering in mountain caves.
Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein used sulfur mustards and the nerve agent Tabun against Iran in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, and against the Kurdish people in northern Iraq in 1988.
Chemical weapons appear to have been used against civilians in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, between the dictatorial regime of Bashar al Assad and a loose collection of rebel groups. Syria's chemical weapons stockpile predates the recent conflict. Following a series of military defeats in war against Israel, the Syrian government began amassing sulfur mustards, sarin, and VX (a nerve agent). Syria could have acquired its first chemical weapons as early as 1973, and publicly admitted to a stockpile in 2012; a foreign ministry spokesman said the weapons would only be used against foreign intervention.
Isn't there a treaty banning chemical weapons?
There is! In fact, there have been several. The first treaty banning chemical weapons actually predates their use. At the 1899 Hague Convention, signatories agreed to not use "Asphyxiating or Deleterious Gases." Germany, France, and the UK broke this agreement during WWI.
Currently, chemical weapons are banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations that took effect in 1997. It bans the creation and use of chemical weapons, mandates their destruction, and encourages international cooperation in chemistry and the chemical trades. Five countries have not signed the treaty: Angola, North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan, and Syria.
The convention is fairly strict about what counts as a chemical weapon. Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant used by the United States in the Vietnam War, does not count as a chemical weapon under the rules of the treaty, despite the fact that it has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and birth defects.
How do militaries dispose of chemical weapons?
Al Mauroni, director of the USAF counterproliferation center in Alabama and author of Chemical Demilitarization: Public Policy Aspects, tells Popular Science that disposal depends on how the weapon was designed:
There are two major ways to dispose of chemical weapons: incineration and neutralization. Incineration uses a tremendous amount of heat to turn the toxic chemical into mostly ash, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. Neutralization breaks the chemical agent down using water and a caustic compound, like sodium hyrdoxide. Both ways generate a waste product: incineration generates ash, and neutralization leaves a large amount of liquid waste that must be stored or further processed.
Can disposal be done on the battlefield?
It can be, though not without some problems. Mauroni describes a process used in Iraq in 1991. "We'd come across a bunch of rockets, and you suspect there might be some chemicals in them," he says. "The field expedient way, if you're in a hurry, is to blow it up in place." Army Explosive Ordinance Demolition teams would use a 10-to-1 ratio of explosives to suspected chemical weapons.
Gulf War Syndrome, an illness seen in veterans of the Persian Gulf War.The heat from the explosives will destroy almost all of the chemical agent in the weapons, and the "very, very low concentration" of whatever wasn't destroyed was dispersed in the air, hopefully harmlessly. There is a chance, however, that this dispersal was one of the many factors behind
How does the U.S. Army dispose of chemical weapons?
The Army has a mobile chemical weapons disposal unit. The United States has nine chemical weapons sites where America's stockpile of chemical weapons is being disposed. While the mobile site is getting press related to Syria, Mauroni thinks it has a more mundane purpose. Two disposal sites, one in Pueblo, Colo., and another in Richmond, Ky., are both under construction, and, Mauroni says, "they both have leakers" in their stored chemical weapons, so "the mobile unit goes out to neutralize the chemical agent."
So if the chemical gets burnt, what about the metal shell it was in?
Mauroni explains: "You have to thermally decontaminate the metal. You can't get the heat high enough to vaporize metal, but what you can do is heat up the metal munitions and burn the tonnage that comes with it. Once that's done, the metal scrap can be sold to industry." The thermal decontamination is done at extremely high temperatures.
Are some chemical weapons easier to destroy than other?
There are precursor chemicals, which are the components used to make a chemical weapon that aren't the weapon itself yet, and those are easier to dispose, because they might have industrial applications and can be sold to companies. For the weapons themselves?
"As far as sarin, mustard, or VX goes, they all have challenges," says Mauroni. Sarin can evaporate when handled. Mustard and VX can spill into the soil, which then means the soil has to be dug up and cleaned. But other than that, it's basically the same process: they all go into a tank for neutralization or an incinerator the same way.
What countries have experience disposing of chemical weapons?
The countries that have the most experience getting rid of chemical weapons are the United States and Russia, owing to their massive Cold War chemical weapons stockpiles. According to Mauroni, Russia had 40,000 tons at its peak, while the United States amassed around 30,000 tons. Both nations have used incineration and neutralization to dispose of chemical agents on a large scale.
Has a country besides Syria ever given up its chemical weapons to another for disposal?
Yes! One good example is Albania, which had 16 metric tons of chemical weapons that they gave to the United States for disposal. Destruction was completed in 2007 and cost $48 million.
How long does it take to clean up a chemical weapons site?
Years, more likely decades, depending on the size of the program. In 1986, Congress passed a law mandating destruction of chemical weapons in the United States, and while a tremendous amount of the stockpile has been destroyed, the work will continue well into the next decade, with the last site set to start disposal in 2020.
What's the bottom line on chemical weapons disposal?
"There's no easy solution, there's no pixie dust, magic vaporization portal," says Mauroni,
Disposal in Syria presents significant problems: "You can't do it slowly, you can't do it safely," Mauroni says. "There's going to be an obvious security risk the whole time you're trying to dispose of these things. It's going to get very expensive, very challenging to maintain security, to move chemical weapons and destroy them."
Weapons of War - Poison Gas
Considered uncivilised prior to World War One, the development and use of poison gas was necessitated by the requirement of wartime armies to find new ways of overcoming the stalemate of unexpected trench warfare.
First Use by the French
Although it is popularly believed that the German army was the first to use gas it was in fact initially deployed by the French. In the first month of the war, August 1914, they fired tear-gas grenades (xylyl bromide) against the Germans. Nevertheless the German army was the first to give serious study to the development of chemical weapons and the first to use it on a large scale.
Initial German Experiments
In the capture of Neuve Chapelle in October 1914 the German army fired shells at the French which contained a chemical irritant whose result was to induce a violent fit of sneezing. Three months later, on 31 January 1915, tear gas was employed by the Germans for the first time on the Eastern Front.
Fired in liquid form contained in 15 cm howitzer shells against the Russians at Bolimov, the new experiment proved unsuccessful, with the tear gas liquid failing to vaporise in the freezing temperatures prevalent at Bolimov.
Not giving up, the Germans tried again with an improved tear gas concoction at Nieuport against the French in March 1915.
Introduction of Poison Gas
The debut of the first poison gas however - in this instance, chlorine - came on 22 April 1915, at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres.
At this stage of the war the famed Ypres Salient, held by the British, Canadians and French, ran for some 10 miles and bulged into German occupied territory for five miles. A combination of French territorials and Algerian troops held the line to the left, with the British and Canadians tending the centre and line to their right.
During the morning of 22 April the Germans poured a heavy bombardment around Ypres, but the line fell silent as the afternoon grew. Towards evening, at around 5 pm, the bombardment began afresh - except that sentries posted among the French and Algerian troops noticed a curious yellow-green cloud drifting slowly towards their line.
Puzzled but suspicious the French suspected that the cloud masked an advance by German infantry and ordered their men to 'stand to' - that is, to mount the trench fire step in readiness for probable attack.
The cloud did not mask an infantry attack however; at least, not yet. It signalled in fact the first use of chlorine gas on the battlefield. Ironically its use ought not to have been a surprise to the Allied troops, for captured German soldiers had revealed the imminent use of gas on the Western Front. Their warnings were not passed on however.
The effects of chlorine gas were severe. Within seconds of inhaling its vapour it destroyed the victim's respiratory organs, bringing on choking attacks. (For a memoir of the first gas attack click here.)
A Missed German Opportunity
Panic-stricken the French and Algerian troops fled in disorder, creating a four-mile gap in the Allied line. Had the Germans been prepared for this eventuality they could potentially have effected a decisive breakthrough. However the results of their experiment caused as much surprise to the German high command as confusion among their opponents.
German infantry did advance into the gap, but nervously and with hesitance. Outflanking the Canadian and British troops to their right, the ensuing fighting was difficult. Although the Germans succeeded in seizing control of a significant portion of the salient the Allies nevertheless managed to re-form a continuous line, though in parts it remained dangerously weak.
Condemnation - and Escalation
The Germans' use of chlorine gas provoked immediate widespread condemnation, and certainly damaged German relations with the neutral powers, including the U.S. The gas attacks were placed to rapid propaganda use by the British although they planned to respond in kind.
The attack had one clear benefit at home however, for it brought to an end German hesitancy (and disagreement) over its use. The cat was out of the bag; and the use of poison gas continued to escalate for the remainder of the war.
Once the Allies had recovered from the initial shock of the Germans' practical application of poison gas warfare, a determination existed to exact retaliatory revenge at the earliest opportunity. The British were the first to respond.
Raising Special Gas Companies in the wake of the Germans' April attack (of approximately 1,400 men) operating under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Foulkes, instructions were given to prepare for a gas attack at Loos in September 1915.
Interestingly the men who comprised the British Special Gas Companies were not allowed to refer to the word "gas" in their operations, such was the stigma attached to its use. Instead they referred to their gas canisters as "accessories"; use of the word "gas" brought with it a threatened punishment.
On the evening of 24 September 1915, therefore, some 400 chlorine gas emplacements were established among the British front line around Loos. The gas was released by turning a cock on each cylinder.
British Setback at Loos
The retaliatory attack began the following morning at 5.20 am. A mixture of smoke and chlorine gas was released intermittently over a period of about 40 minutes before the infantry assault began.
However, releasing gas from cylinders in this manner meant that the user had to be wary of wind conditions. It was desirable that a light wind exist in the direction of the enemy trenches; if the wind were to turn however, the biter would be bit.
In parts of the British line that morning this is precisely what transpired.
The wind shifted and quantities of the smoke and gas were blown back into the British trenches. It has been estimated that more British gas casualties were suffered that morning than German.
Although the numbers are arguable there is little doubt but that the exercise proved a failure: and the resultant infantry attack similarly failed.
The Need for a New Delivery Mechanism
Although it was the British who chiefly suffered on 25 September 1915 all three chief armies - Britain, France and Germany - suffered similar self-inflicted gas reversals during 1915. It became apparent that if gas was to be used a more reliable delivery mechanism was called for.
In consequence experiments were undertaken to deliver the gas payload in artillery shells. This provided the additional benefits of increasing the target range as well as the variety of gases released.
Following on the heels of chlorine gas came the use of phosgene. Phosgene as a weapon was more potent than chlorine in that while the latter was potentially deadly it caused the victim to violently cough and choke.
Phosgene caused much less coughing with the result that more of it was inhaled; it was consequently adopted by both German and Allied armies. Phosgene often had a delayed effect; apparently healthy soldiers were taken down with phosgene gas poisoning up to 48 hours after inhalation.
The so-called "white star" mixture of phosgene and chlorine was commonly used on the Somme: the chlorine content supplied the necessary vapour with which to carry the phosgene.
Remaining consistently ahead in terms of gas warfare development, Germany unveiled an enhanced form of gas weaponry against the Russians at Riga in September 1917: mustard gas (or Yperite) contained in artillery shells.
Mustard gas, an almost odourless chemical, was distinguished by the serious blisters it caused both internally and externally, brought on several hours after exposure. Protection against mustard gas proved more difficult than against either chlorine or phosgene gas.
The use of mustard gas - sometimes referred to as Yperite - also proved to have mixed benefits. While inflicting serious injury upon the enemy the chemical remained potent in soil for weeks after release: making capture of infected trenches a dangerous undertaking.
Ever Increasing Production
As with chlorine and phosgene gas before it, the Allies promptly reciprocated by copying the Germans' use of mustard gas. By 1918 the use of use of poison gases had become widespread, particularly on the Western Front. If the war had continued into 1919 both sides had planned on inserting poison gases into 30%-50% of manufactured shells.
Other types of gases produced by the belligerents included bromine and chloropicrin. The French army occasionally made use of a nerve gas obtained from prussic acid.
However three forms of gas remained the most widely used: chlorine, phosgene and mustard.
The German army ended the war as the heaviest user of gas. It is suggested that German use reached 68,000 tons; the French utilised 36,000 tons and the British 25,000.
Diminishing Effectiveness of Gas
Although gas claimed a notable number of casualties during its early use, once the crucial element of surprise had been lost the overall number of casualties quickly diminished. Indeed, deaths from gas after about May 1915 were relatively rare.
It has been estimated that among British forces the number of gas casualties from May 1915 amounted to some 9 per cent of the total - but that of this total only around 3% were fatal. Even so, gas victims often led highly debilitating lives thereafter with many unable to seek employment once they were discharged from the army.
In large part this was because of the increasing effectiveness of the methods used to protect against poison gas. Gas never turned out to be the weapon that turned the tide of the war, as was often predicted. Innovations in its use were quickly combated and copied by opposing armies in an ongoing cycle.
Protection Against Gas
The types of protection initially handed out to the troops around Ypres following the first use of chlorine in April 1915 were primitive in the extreme. 100,000 wads of cotton pads were quickly manufactured and made available. These were dipped in a solution of bicarbonate of soda and held over the face.
Soldiers were also advised that holding a urine drenched cloth over their face would serve in an emergency to protect against the effects of chlorine.
By 1918 soldiers on both sides were far better prepared to meet the ever-present threat of a gas attack. Filter respirators (using charcoal or antidote chemicals) were the norm and proved highly effective, although working in a trench while wearing such respirators generally proved difficult and tiring.
With the Armistice, such was the horror and disgust at the wartime use of poison gases that its use was outlawed in 1925 - a ban that is, at least nominally, still in force today.
In Tooele they had a leak and killed about 6500 sheep were killed after a leak. Would have killed a flock of people if they had been around. This movie was very interesting and scary. Allot of it has already been disposed of including all the gas stored in Tooele.
@Starz please stop that, we don't like it. Posting a link with a snippet or two and recommending an article is fine but posting the entire article is inappropriate. You may be in violation of copyright law as well.
Thousands of leaky gas bombs were dumped at sea off the coasts of New Jersey and Florida. I wonder if it could be why the dolphins are dying.
lol, who is we, you and the mouse in your pocket and as far as copyright laws, consider how much PoPSCi plagiarizes it articles of the internet.
You opinion is just that; no mouse included.
Say, check out this article!
You may enjoy the first picture in the article too.
2) Say, check out this article!
You may enjoy the first picture in the article too.
Adaptation: That wasn't a leak from the chemical site. Really, it wasn't even a leak.
What you are thinking of was a chemical weapons test in the 60s, and due to a stuck valve it affected a larger than planned area. Thanks to storms, this spread far enough to affect the flock of sheep and killed over 6000. This was completely separate from the disposal facility ( which actually was used to make the weapons back then. )
Starz: That image is taken from the wikimedia commons. It was taken by a military photographer, which places it in the public domain. It is free for everyone to use. News sites like free, that's why they all use the same one. Since it is in the public domain, it is not copyrighted.
I hope those other websites are paying 'Kelsey' for use of her article or at least ask permission to use it. They do at least post she wrote it. I guess its a well like article, kudo for her!
@Starz You are allowed under fair use doctrine to copy portions of work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting etc. provided the amount and substantiality is of limited scope. You copied the vast majority of an article omitting only a table that was difficult to transfer to this forums format. The article is clearly under copyright and includes the date of creation.
A copyright license is a formal permission stating who may use a copyrighted work and how they may use it. A license can only be granted by the copyright holder, which is usually the author (photographer, painter or similar). http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Licensing
In the case of stock photos you pay a fee and are given license to use a photo in your publication but you don't receive exclusive rights to the photo this is why you see the same picture in multiple articles, it does not mean the publishers are "plagiarizing" the photos. In this instance notice the attribution on the photo "Syrian Soldier In Gas Mask H. H. Deffner, via Wikimedia Commons" Wikimedia Commons contains documents that have a free and open license meaning anyone can use them and are commonly but not always required to provide attribution.
Please also note that plagiarism is distinct and independent from copyright infringement. Plagiarism is not illegal on its own but often goes hand in hand with copyright violation which is illegal, plagiarizing work for financial gain may also be considered fraud. Works under copyright are not required to display the copyright symbol and all works produced after 1989 are automatically considered to be under copyright.
I was adding the 'other article' information many times to be helpful, trying to support comments I make with references and so forth, but I clearly see you point and appreciate you added copy right information, thank you.
Kelsey's level of ignorance when it comes to chemical weapons is astounding.
Its as if he just read a few stories without any fact checking and wrote an article like a 5th grader.
No where in his article does he mention persistent and non persistent agents.
non persistent agents break down easily given certain environmental conditions such as heat, humidity exposure to sunlight. persistent agents can stay around for years.
Most countries with a chemical weapons program today use binary agents. That means there is a primary and a number of secondary agents that mix together to become the weapon. A lot of precursors have secondary uses such as organophosphates.
I could go on and on about his lake of understanding but you get the idea.
Oh enough, both of you.
@Adaptation, is it that big of a deal? Skip over it if you don't want to read it. I for one enjoyed the additional information on the same topic as the article i clicked to read. Is it really copyright infringement if the link to the article is provided? I honestly have no idea, but if the original source is free to view and a link to the original source is provided, where's the harm?
@Starz, stop antagonizing lol
@Manannan - from the article:
"Are some chemical weapons easier to destroy than other?
There are precursor chemicals, which are the components used to make a chemical weapon that aren't the weapon itself yet, and those are easier to dispose, because they might have industrial applications and can be sold to companies."
Don't be such a dick.
Easiest way, nuke em'. Wouldn't make many friends, but effective. And for the no sense of humor crowd, I don't condone there use.
It might be cheaper and safer to launch these chemicals into outer space. If the containers were designed to leak slowly, the poisons may dissipate enough to become harmless.
If they were launched to collide with the surface of the sun, I would imagine that the vaporization would leave NO trace of the poisons, or their delivery systems!
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