Monday, November 16, 2009

The Threat from Chemical Warfare

Chemical Warfare
Weapons of Mass Destruction are often divided in to three categories: NBC: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare. As a first step in covering the different kinds of Weapons of Mass Destruction I’m going to write about chemical warfare. Chemical weapons have different kinds of effects, but normally they kill, injure or incapacitates. Nerve agents are the most lethal of the chemical weapons. They are extremely poisonous, have no color and only a weak scent. If they are inhaled they may kill in a matter of minutes, many of the nerve agents may penetrated the skin, and in this case it may be up to half an hour before symptoms appear. To be protected against nerve agents a full body suit is required and a gasmask. To protect against nerve agents there is an also prophylactic tablet that can be taken before exposure and auto injectors that may be taken after exposure.

Examples of Events and Large Scale Accidents
1914-1918 During The First World War chemical weapons was used extensively by both sides and over a million were injured and over one hundred thousand killed by this type of weapon.

1939-1945 During the Second World War Poisonous gas was used in the Nazi concentration camps on a massive scale as one way of many to kill millions. Both the US and Germany has large stockpiles of chemical weapons, but they never came in to use during the Second World War.

1955-1975 During the Vietnam War chemical agents were used by the American forces to clear areas from vegetation, the most famous of these chemicals agents was Agent Orange.

1980-1988 The war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980:s was one of the most violent conflicts of the Cold War, both sides used chemical weapons in the war. The war was the first conflict when nerve gas was used as weapons of war.

1984 the worst chemical accident in history to place in the city Bhopal in India. The accident happened at night and around 2500 died and around 50000 was injured. The chemical agents were a leakage from a factory producing pesticides. Large scale chemical accidents are unusual but small scale accident is more common.

Saddam Hussein’s regime used nerve gas and mustard gas against the Kurdish city Halabja 1988 after the Iran-Iraq war, an attack that killed thousands of civilians and many more was injured. When the first Gulf War started 1991 there was a big fear that Iraq would use chemical weapons against the coalition forces. This was a much pressured situation for the Iraqi regime but they still chose not to employ chemical weapons.

1995 The Attack against the Tokyo Subway by the sect Aum Shinrikyo is the most devastating attack with a nerve gas by a non state actor in history. The delivery system was very primitive but the attack still killed twelve persons and injured a couple of thousands. The Cult had also attacked another Japanese city in 1994 where seven was killed and a couple of hundred was injured.

2002 Russian forces employed a chemical agent to incapacitate both the Chechnya rebels and the hostages in a Moscow theater. Over 100 hostages died as a result.

2003 The fear that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was an important factor when the decision was made to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein’s regime 2003.

Teargas or mace is often used a riot control agent in various countries. Teargas is normally not lethal and incapacities the people how get affected by the gas. The difference between the level of exposure that incapacitates people and the level that is lethal is very big. For a dose to be lethal exposure must normally take place within a closed are without circulation of the air. This is the chemical weapon that you are most likely to get exposed to in my opinion. Normally the symptoms from the gases are gone within half an hour.

Transports of Chemical Agents
A potential risk comes from chemical agents that are being transported. The containers are constructed to withstand accidents so serious consequences are unusual, but nothing is perfect and accident in a high density populated area could have disastrous consequences. Transport of dangerous chemical agents is also a potential target for antagonistic attacks like terrorism or crime.

The Threat Today
Chemical Weapon Conventions means that both the US and Russia are reducing and will completely remove their possession of lethal chemical weapons. The US has stopped the production of chemical weapons 1990 and both the US and Russia is reducing their stockpiles but the progress is slow. The last figures I’ve seen indicates that the US has about 22800 tons of chemical agents and Russia about 40000 tons of chemical agents. The US Stockpile mostly contains VX, Mustard gas and Sarin, The Russian stockpile around 80% nerve agents.

Other countries that are believed to have chemical weapons or the capacity to manufacture them are: Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, China, India, Burma, North Korea, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Algeria and Libya.

The threat may increase because of the increased knowledge in the world and access to recipes for different chemical weapons, especially trough the internet. This can mean that non state actors may create this kind of weapons easier than before. There are still big problems to spread these kinds of weapons in large scale, something that the attacks in Tokyo showed.

How to Protect Yourself
If you are in a area that is directly the first indications you will get is most likely symptoms from different person around, maybe even from yourself. This first signs YOU have to take seriously and get into safety. If a large scale attack with chemical weapons would take place in an area where you are its important that you try to get away from the affected area or get inside a building for some protection. Put on cloths to protect exposed skin and cover your mouth with and some cloth to reduce the exposure. The direction of the wind is one of the absolutely most important factors; don’t try to escape in the same direction as the wind. There is sophisticated equipment for detection; many potential targets in the US have automatic detection equipment that will give an early warning quickly in case of an attack. If you suspect that an attack is under way, turn on your radio and listen to messages from government agencies.

If you are at home or another building when an attack with chemical weapons, an accident at a chemical industry or transport would take place; close all doors and windows. Then close all ventilation and use tape, towels or whatever you to stop make doors and windows more secure. Preparing for this and practicing for this in my opinion the most important step you can take as a private citizen. Also learn where the nearest shelters with a protection for the public can be found. A gasmask may be a good addition, but in a worst case scenario where a military nerve agent would be used it doesn’t offer enough protection. If you do chose to buy a gasmask the most important part is that it’s airtight and fits your face, the best way to try this is to take part in an exercise where mace is being used. To protect the rest of your body you can improvise protection by using plastic or rubber clothing and use tape to seal the areas where the clothing meet. Remember that you have to safely dispose of the clothing you been wearing and wash your body very careful if you been exposed to chemical agents.

Attacks with chemical weapons are in my opinion a low probability scenario that could have really high consequences. But there are some examples of chemical weapons being used by non state actors.

I would like to thank the member Isopsycho from Survialist boards for some additional advice about how you can protect yourself from chemical agents. I also would like to recommend the book "Weapons of Mass Destruction" by Mary Byrd Davis & Arthur H. Purcell as good reference book on the subject.

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