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In the days before atomic weaponry, considerable research was put into developing nerve agents, including our name sake, "sarin," which was developed by the Germans in 1938. Sixty-three years later, the threat of chemical warfare is still strong.

In the history of mankind, there has always been a search for bigger and better weapons, whether it was the creation of the simple arrowhead thousands of years ago or the creation of the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s. Perhaps one of the most gruesome and likely threats today, however, is chemical warfare.

On March 20, 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect, a Buddhist splinter group, released sarin gas at several points in the Tokyo, Japan subway system, killing 11 and injuring more than 5,500 people. The most unfortunate fact, however, is that this terrorist act could have been far worse.
Sarin, a colorless and odorless gas, has a lethal dose of 0.5 milligram for an adult. It is 26 times more deadly than cyanide gas and is 20 times more lethal than potassium cyanide. Just 0.01 milligram per kilogram of body weight a pinprick sized droplet will kill a human. The vapor is slightly heavier than air, so it hovers close to the ground. Under wet and humid weather conditions sarin degrades swiftly, but as the temperature rises up to a certain point, sarin’s lethal duration increases, despite the humidity.

Among the most dangerous chemical weapons are the so called nerve gasses or nerve agents, nerve agents have entirely dominated chemical warfare since World War II. Nerve agents acquired their name because they affect the transmission of nerve impulses in the nervous system. All nerve agents belong chemically to the group of organo-phosphorus compounds. They are stable and easily dispersed, highly toxic and have rapid effects both when absorbed through the skin and via respiration. Nerve agents can be manufactured by means of fairly simple chemical techniques. The raw materials are inexpensive and generally readily available. This makes them even more dangerous as they can be made by any irresponsible mind with a decent laboratory.

A factory for production of this first nerve agent was built and a total of 12,000 tons of tabun were produced during the years three years (1942-1945). At the end of the second world war the Allies seized large quantities of this nerve agent and other nerve agents that Schrader and his co-workers has synthesised. They synthesized about 2,000 new organo-phosphorus compounds, including sarin (1938). The third of the "classic" nerve agents, soman, was first produced in 1944. These three nerve agents are known as G agents in the American nomenclature. The manufacture of sarin never started properly and up to 1945 only about 0.5 tons of this nerve agent was produced in a pilot plant.

This was in hindsight a very good job or the history books would read very differently. Enough sarin gas could easily have won Germany the war. There is evidence that suggests that Hitler was advised against using the agents and even stopped their production. Hitler's Minister of Production, Albert Speer, said after the war, "All sensible army people turned gas warfare down as being utterly insane, since, in view of America's superiority in the air, it would not be long before it would bring the most terrible catastrophe upon German cities."

Immediately after the war, research was mainly concentrated on studies of the mechanisms of the nerve agents in order to discover more effective forms of protection against these new CW agents. The results of these efforts led, however, not only to better forms of protection but also to new types of agents closely related to the earlier ones. By the mid-1950's a group of more stable nerve agents had been developed, known as the V-agents in the American nomenclature. They are approximately ten-fold more poisonous than sarin and are thus among the most toxic substances ever synthesised never the less due to sarin's other properties, it is still extremely effective.

The first publication of these substances appeared in 1955. The authors, R. Ghosh and J.F.Newman, described one of the new strain of nerve agents substances, known as Amiton, as being particularly effective against mites. At this time, intensive research was being devoted to the organo-phosphorus insecticides both in Europe and in the United States. At least three chemical firms appear to have independently discovered the remarkable toxicity of these phosphorus compounds during the years 1952-53. Surprisingly enough, some of these substances were available on the market as pesticides. A remarkably stupid decision, they were soon withdrawn owing to their considerable toxicity to mammals and therefore humans this serves as a warning tat the proper research should be carried out before bringing out new product to spray over our food.

Another, more persistent agent, named VX was discovered by British chemist R. Ghosh. It was touted as being even more toxic than the previously synthesized nerve agents. Since the discovery of VX in 1949 there has been only minor advancements in the development of new nerve agents. In the United States, the choice fell in 1958 on a substance known by its code name VX as suitable as a chemical warfare agent of persistent type. Full-scale production of VX started in April 1961 but its structure was not published until 1972. Stockpiling the existing agents became a way for global heavyweights to flex their power in the later half of this century, but now efforts are being made to destroy the enormous stockpiles.

A famous contemporary use of nerve agents was in the Iran-Iraq War (1984-1988). In this conflict the UN confirmed that Iraq used the nerve agent Tabun and other organophosphorous nerve agents against Iran. This incident is a prime example of how chemical warfare technology was shared during the Cold War. The Soviets would arm their allies while the US did the same for its allies. Iraq was obviously a benefactor and implemented its chemical stockpiles during the war. Another contemporary incident of nerve agent use occurred in Japan. The Aum Shinrikyo Cult was reported to have used the nerve agent Sarin in a Tokyo subway. This incident of use gives some clue as to the new roles that nerve agents play, as tools of terrorists instead of powerful nations.

Overall, while chemical warfare is not necessarily the most advanced technology, as nuclear technology has surpassed it, it is the form of warfare that threatens the world the most, both for it's relative ease of production, and for the fact that it does not destroy the surrounding property like with atomic weaponry. It is, therefore, the utmost importance that the world prevents it from happening even before it is started.


Note: Much of this article comes from http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Lab/7050/. This article, in no way, can be reproduced without permission of the original author. This article is only reproduced here for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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