The different types of chemical weapons produce different effects on the human body – and variations on how to protect yourself. In more recent times just the fear that an enemy could have chemical weapons has seen many battlefield troops having to wear protective clothing. This clothing means that you are far less mobile and your ability to fight can be impaired. In civilian areas the threat to use chemical or biological weapons can produce fear and panic in the population. It is still not known who carried out the anthrax attacks in the United States in 2002 but it showed how much disruption can be caused with a very small amount.
Chemical weapons can be split into four main categories - each has a different effect.
(including sulphur mustard): Causes blisters and burning of the skin, eyes, throat and lungs. Death can result from the lungs filling with fluid. Can cause blindness. Sulphur mustard can cause cancers, and could also cause birth defects and cancers including leukaemia in the offspring of those exposed.
* Choking Agents
(including chlorine and phosgene): Irritate the eyes, throat and lungs. Death can result from the lungs filling with fluid.
* Blood Agents
: Stop oxygen getting to tissue and to vital organs.
* Nerve Agents
: The most dangerous and fatal in even very small amounts. Cause convulsions and death by respiratory paralysis. Can be absorbed through the skin and penetrates clothing.
In the main, two types of chemical weapons were used in the First World War. When the chlorine gas cloud reached the Allied lines, a yellow fluid formed in the lungs of the troops, there was a burning of the eyes, nose and throat before they choked to death. The mustard gas used is known as a ‘blister agent’ as it attacks the skin causing burns and blisters. It doesn’t take a lot to do this and one of its perceived advantages is that, instead of killing lots of troops, it creates many injuries that need treatment. And of course, that treatment takes up valuable time and money. However, it doesn’t always work like that. It can take up to 12 hours before any symptoms are evident. This was particularly noticeable during the Iran-Iraq war. The Iranians suffered terrible casualties as their troops continued to wear their uniform and breathe normally despite the fact that they were covered in mustard.
Testing and research
In Britain, research into chemical weapons has been carried out at Porton Down in Wiltshire since it opened in 1916. Although much of the work is secret, some aspects of it have become more public in recent years.
At first some of the Porton Down staff took part in trials. After the first world war volunteers (or ‘observers’ as they were called) came from the armed forces. Much of the early work looked at the effects of agents such as mustard gas. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) estimates that between 6-8000 volunteers may have been exposed to mustard.
After the second world war nerve agents became the focus. The MoD say that around 3400 took part in these tests between 1945 and 1989. It was during this time that problems arose. Large numbers of volunteers took part in the Service Volunteer Programme. In 1953, one of those from the RAF, Ronald Maddison, then aged 20 volunteered for what he thought was research into curing the common cold. About 200 milligrams of the nerve agent sarin was deliberately dripped onto his skin. He was dead within 45 minutes.
Maddison was just one of many. But it took many years for the truth to be uncovered. Once those who took part in such trials, and their families found out what had really happened there were a number of complaints. In 1999 Wiltshire police launched an investigation into 25 selected cases between 1939-1989. In a separate development, an inquest into the death of Ronald Maddison began in May 2004. The inquest, concluded on 15th November 2004, ruled that he was unlawfully killed. The outcome could lead to legal action by veterans of Porton Down, some of whom claim they were forced to take part in similar tests.
At least 20,000 armed service personnel have taken part as volunteers at Porton Down. Currently there are about 100 per year, mainly trials of counter measures to chemical warfare agents. As well as this, many hundreds of thousands of animals have been used in experiments at Porton Down.