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Pernicious chemical weapons

Pernicious chemical weapons
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In the wake of alleged chemical attack by Syrian government troops on the civilian population on the outskirts of Damascus last week, there is a...

Police and military sometimes use Riot Control Agents (RCA) to control unruly mobs and rioters. They are intended not to kill or injure but to control and disperse the huge restive crowds and mobs particularly during agitations

In the wake of alleged chemical attack by Syrian government troops on the civilian population on the outskirts of Damascus last week, there is a growing fear among nations about the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. Inspection of attack sites and visits to survivors by UN-appointed experts may provide some concrete evidence about the nature and extent of real damage caused by the chemical weapons. In modern warfare, chemical, nuclear and biological weapons constitute the most dreaded weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Use of chemical weapons is meant to kill, incapacitate or injure the enemy. Often they cause extensive damage not only to people but also to agriculture and live stock by causing hunger and starvation. The lethal agents bring life to a standstill in the affected area. Though they have been used in wars earlier, their modern use goes back to the First World War. The extensive use of mustard gas (nitrogen mustards, a vesicant) and phosgene (a chloride gas) caused lung searing, blindness and death due to asphyxiation.

There was a huge public furore over the trail of destruction left by these chemical gases. Even military officials were shocked. Unlike conventional weapons, which hit the targeted areas, chemical weapons lack directed action. Since they drift along the wind, they cause maximum harm.

Soon after the First World War, several conventions were initiated to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Around 133 countries have become party to Geneva Protocol, also known as Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. It prohibits use of chemical and biological weapons, but has failed to address the issue of storage, stockpiling and transfer of these weapons.

Later, to address this lacuna, the modern arms control agreement Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), known as Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, was enacted. It is administered by The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The CWC mission is to prevent use of chemical and biological weapons; inspect chemical weapons and destroy the stocks present in its 189 signatory countries. CWC prevents the use of any toxic chemical, regardless of its origin, like the non-living toxic compounds produced by living organisms like plants (toxins like botulinum, ricin) are considered chemical weapons unless they are used for purposes that are not prohibited under the general purpose criteria.

There are seven nations (Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified) not party to the CWC. North Korea, South Sudan, Angola and Egypt haven’t signed the protocol. Syria, though not a signatory member of Chemical Weapons Convention, is a party to Geneva Protocol which doesn’t take stock of the production and storage of chemical weapons in its territory. But despite being a non-party to CWC, UN Commissioner for Human Rights strongly condemns Syria as it has customary binding to the International law which prohibits the use of chemical weapons by both the government and anti-government allied forces.

Chemicals weapons constitute several potent and lethal chemicals. They are used in solid, liquid and gaseous form. These are stored in three basic configurations -- munitions, projectiles, cartridges, mines and rockets and even as aircraft delivered munitions. They are both unitary and binary: The former contains a single lethal chemical, while the latter two chemicals which are not lethal until they are mixed.

There are four different categories based on their physiological affects on the human body. They are: Blood agents like the cyanides that interfere in development and maturation process of the RBC and are metabolic poisons; blister agents or vesicants like the nitrogen and sulphur mustards, urticants that produce water-filled blisters and wheal on skin; nerve agents that cause dislocation of nerve synapses resulting in loss of neurological control. These include the compounds of varying efficacies and designated as G series, V series and GV series containing compounds like Sarin, Tabun, Cyclosarin. Symptoms range from severe palpitation, sweating to paralysis, convulsions and death. Pulmonary agents like phosgene, chlorine, and chloropicrin result in severe irritation to lungs and cause damage to lung-blood barrier.

Apart from these harmful chemical agents, police and military sometimes use Riot Control Agents (RCA) to control unruly mobs and rioters. They are intended not to kill or injure but to control and disperse the huge restive crowds and mobs particularly during agitations. They include regular non-lethal incapacitating agents like LSD which cause hallucination and delirium; harassing agents like tear gas such as Bromoacetone, Bromobenzyl cyanide irritate the mucous membrane and have a lachrymatory affect; vomiting agents like Adamsite, Diphenylchloroarsine (DA), Diphenylcyanoarsine (DC) cause coughing, sneezing and nausea and malodorants that produce strong unpleasant and repulsive smell.

In the deadly Syrian attack, that is said to have killed 1,300 people, Sarin (GB), a nerve agent and an organophosphate compound, was supposed to have been used. Sarin was last used in 1994 and 1995 in terrorist attacks in Japan. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), Sarin is a colourless, tasteless clear liquid when pure and can quickly evaporate. It is a very potent nerve agent and was developed by Germans as an insecticide in 1938. The symptoms vary depending on the amount, mode and length of exposure of a person to the chemical. Exposure to mild doses of Sarin might result in chest tightness, rapid breathing, drooling, heavy sweating, blurred vision and nausea. Mildly exposed people usually recover completely but severely exposed people are unlikely to survive.

The Syrian issue is now widely debated among the leaders of various nations and most of them are contemplating a legal action. This should deter the use of chemical weapons any more.

(The writer is a scientist, blogger and a freelancer)

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