Chemical agents of warfare include all gaseous, liquid or solid chemical substances which might be employed because of their direct toxic effects on man and animals. (This excludes substances whose effect is primarily physical, such as incendiary weapons, high explosives and smoke). Chemical weapons also include the chemical's precursors, the munitions and devices designed to deliver them, and any equipment specifically designed for their use in warfare.
Nerve agents (chemicals of the same family as organophosphorus insecticides) are the most lethal of the classical chemical warfare agents, killing by poisoning the nervous system and disrupting bodily functions. Blister agents (such as mustard gas) burn and blister the skin (causing more casualties than any other agent in the first world war). Vesicants are blistering and tissue-injuring agents which produce injuries similar to burns, although the mechanism behind the injury is different. Choking agents (such as phosgene) are highly volatile liquids. Toxins (such as mycotoxins and botulin toxin) are biological substances chemical substances produced biologically (although many of them have also been synthesized) which are very highly toxic. Tear gas and harassing agents are sensory irritants causing pain in the eyes, tear flow, and severe irritation of the upper respiratory tract (and have been widely used as riot control weapons); they can also cause skin irritation, nausea and vomiting. Psycho-chemicals are drug-like chemicals intended to cause temporary mental derangement, including psychosis. Cyanides (blood agents) cause headaches, weakness, disorientation and nausea in low doses; higher doses are acutely lethal causing circulatory effects, seizures and respiratory and cardiac failure. Incapacitating agents produce physiologic or mental effects, or both. They render individuals incapable of performing normal activities. DZ (3-quinuclidinyl benzilate) is the most commonly used. It is pharmacologically related to anticholinergic drugs and is present within some over-the-counter sleeping medications. Tear gases are used primarily for riot control and cause irritation to the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin. Herbicides may also be used to poison or defoliate plants.
Chemical weapons technology has progressed rapidly in recent years. The cheapness of materials now means that many more countries have the capacity to produce them. The intent to use chemicals in warfare is indicated by stockpiles of weapons and other military preparedness. For example, the Russian SCUD B missile can be equipped with a chemical warhead. Soviet stockpiles of chemical weapons are extensive and include the extremely toxic nerve agents sarin and soman, together with VX and the blistering agents mustard gas and lewisite. The USA halted large scale production of poison gas munitions in 1969, but have a 30,000 tonne stockpile; a multi-billion dollar budget to produce binary nerve gas weapons has been discontinued. France and the UK have been reported to be manufacturing and stocking chemical weapons, although both deny possession (the UK destroyed its then existing stock during the 1950's). Western intelligence sources claim that over twenty nations, in addition to the USA, Russia and Iraq, either possess chemical weapons or have an active programme for the development of such weapons. These nations include many in the Middle East (Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iran) as well as China, Vietnam and North Korea. Allegations that the former Soviet Union used chemical weapons in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia (1979-82) were never proven. The "yellow rain" turned out to consist, at least in part, of bee faeces, although uncertainties exist over any toxic substances. Iraq used mustard agent and nerve agents against Iran in the period 1983-88, including the nerve gas sarin, against northern Kurds in 1988. After the Gulf War in 1991, the Iraqi chemical weapons were destroyed by the United Nations.
Hundreds of Gulf War veterans have complained of severe flu-like symptoms (as many as 2,000 may be affected), but it is not know if chemical weapons were the cause. In 1993 it was alleged that Iraq had rebuilt its chemical weapons factories and had used such weapons (possibly white phosphorous) against Arabs located in the Hammar Marshes south of the Euphrates river. The Pentagon had insisted that it learned only in 1996 of an incident in which large numbers of American troops may have been exposed to chemical weapons - an event in March 1991, in which American combat engineers blew up an Iraqi ammunition bunker that was later determined to have contained tons of nerve gas and mustard agent.
Incapacitating agents produce physiologic or mental effects, or both. They render individuals incapable of performing normal activities. DZ (3-quinuclidinyl benzilate) is the most commonly used. It is pharmacologically related to anticholinergic drugs, and is present within some over-the-counter sleeping medications.
Tear gases are used primarily for riot control and cause irritation to the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin. Long-term effects of repeat exposure to these gases are not well studied.
Chemical weapon are militarily useful only against ill-equipped armies, civilian populations, or agricultural or natural ecosystems. This is one of the more disconcerting aspects of chemical warfare, that the greatest advantages and incentives for the use of chemicals exist when there is a serious asymmetry in chemical capability between the two opposing combatants. Against a prepared opponent, chemical weapons offer little or no sustained advantage since the side initiating the chemical attack must be prepared to fight encumbered by protective equipment.
Chemical weapons are a humane alternative to nuclear war. A gas, for example, may still be developed that merely temporarily incapacitates. Modern gas masks are capable of reducing the concentration of all known war gases by a factor of about 100,000. In addition there are chemical antidotes for nerve agents that can provide protection if the dose of agent is not very great and the antidote is administered properly.