Chemical Weapons

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  • Topic: Chemical warfare, Sarin, World War I
  • Pages : 6 (2254 words )
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  • Published : December 25, 2012
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Chemical Weapons
Chemical weapons use the toxic properties of chemical substances rather than their explosive properties to produce physical or physiological effects on an enemy. Although instances of what might be styled as chemical weapons date to antiquity, much of the lore of chemical weapons as viewed today has its origins in World War I. During that conflict "gas" (actually an aerosol or vapor) was used effectively on numerous occasions by both sides to alter the outcome of battles. A significant number of battlefield casualties were sustained. The Geneva Protocol, prohibiting use of chemical weapons in warfare, was signed in 1925. Several nations, the United States included, signed with a reservation forswearing only the first use of the weapons and reserved the right to retaliate in kind if chemical weapons were used against them (the United States did not ratify the Protocol until 1975). Chemical weapons were employed in the intervening period by Italy (in Ethiopia) and Japan (in Manchuria and China). Both nations were signatories to the Geneva Convention. Chemical weapons were never deliberately employed by the Allies or the Axis during World War II, despite the accumulation of enormous stockpiles by both sides. Instances of employment of chemical weapons in the local wars since then are arguable, although they were definitely used in the Iran-Iraq conflict of 1982-87. Development of chemical weapons in World War I was predominantly the adaptation of a chemical "fill" to a standard munition. The chemicals were commercial chemicals or variants. Their properties were, for the most part, well known. The Germans simply opened canisters of chlorine and let the prevailing winds do the dissemination. Shortly thereafter the French put phosgene in a projectile and this method became the principal means of delivery. In July 1917, the Germans employed mustard shells for the first time and simultaneously attempted to use a solid particulate emetic, diphenyl chloroarsine, as a mask breaker. Mustard, an insidious material, penetrates leather and fabrics and inflicts painful burns on the skin. These two themes, along with significant increases in toxicity, represent a large segment of the research and development of chemical weapons that nations have pursued over the years. There is first the concept of agents that attack the body through the skin, preferably also through clothing, and more preferably through protective clothing. Along with that concept is the idea of penetrating or "breaking" the protective mask so that it no longer offers protection for the respiratory system. Increasing the toxicity of the chemical agent used would theoretically lower the amounts required to produce a battlefield effect. Unless this increase is significant, however, it can be masked by the inefficiencies of disseminating the agent. Consequently, later development has focused on the methods for delivering the agent efficiently to the target. The chemicals employed before World War II can be styled as the "classic" chemical weapons. They are relatively simple substances, most of which were either common industrial chemicals or their derivatives. An example is phosgene, a choking agent (irritates the eyes and respiratory tract). Phosgene is important in industry as a chlorinating material. A second example is hydrogen cyanide, a so-called blood agent (prevents transfer of oxygen to the tissues), now used worldwide in the manufacture of acrylic polymers. The classic chemical agents would be only marginally useful in modern warfare and generally only against an unsophisticated opponent. Moreover, large quantities would be required to produce militarily significant effects, thus complicating logistics. Blister agents or vesicants are an exception to the limited utility of classic agents. Although these materials have a relatively low lethality, they are effective casualty agents that inflict painful burns and blisters requiring medical attention...
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