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Chemical weapons

Nerve agents

A potentially lethal chemical agent which interferes with the transmission of nerve impulses.

  • Sarin gas: Inhaled as a vapor or absorbed via droplets splashed on the skin, sarin gas can lead to loss of consciousness within a minute and death a few minutes later. Other examples: VX, Tabun and Soman.
  • Blister agents: Chemical weapons that damage any tissue they contact. These agents include vapors that can affect the eyes and respiratory tract. Sometimes they are lethal, but generally they are designed to debilitate.
  • Mustard gas: In a typical case, extremely painful blisters develop four to eight hours after exposure, damaging the skin, eyes and lungs. At high enough doses, death can occur from respiratory failure, especially when left untreated.
    Other examples: phosgene oxime, Lewisite.
  • Blood agents: A chemical compound, including the cyanide group, that affects bodily functions by preventing the normal utilization of oxygen by body tissues.
  • Cyanide gas: If a victim breathes a large enough dose, death can occur within six to eight minutes.
  • Other examples: hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chloride, arsine.

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research

DELIVERY Missiles, artillery shells, timed explosives or even a piece of fruit can deliver deadly toxins. In ideal weather conditions, a missile warhead filled with botulinum, for instance, can contaminate an area of 2,300 square miles. A similar warhead filled with the nerve agent sarin can contaminate 140 square miles. Chemical weapons are relatively cheap compared to nuclear arsenals or even the cost of conventional war. Biological weapons are even cheaper, and potentially are even deadlier. Any country with missile or artillery forces can field such weapons, though they are banned by international treaties. HISTORY The horrendous European battlefields of World War I are the modern antecedent of bio-chemical warfare. The use of mustard gas killed tens of thousands on both sides but rarely affected the outcome of battles. Few nations have dared use bio-chemical weapons since: Japan in World War II, Egypt and Yemen in the 1970s, Iraq during the 1980s and a Japanese suicide cult in 1995. Click on a date at left to learn more Source: http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/documents/biowpns.htm and http://whyfiles.org/025chem_weap/3.html


  • 1915: In World War I, Germany released chlorine gas at Ypres, Belgium. Victims were killed or maimed by burning lungs.
  • 1917: Mustard gas was introduced as a chemical weapon by the Germans in 1917 and was later used by France and Great Britain before the Great War ended
  • 1918: The French used 4,000 tons of cyanide gas in World War I.
  • 1920s: Britain used chemical weapons in Iraq "as an experiment" against Kurdish rebels seeking independence.
  • 1935: Italy began conquest of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, using mustard gas.


  • 1936: Japan invaded China and used chemical weapons.
  • 1945: Japanese military discovered to have conducted biological warfare experiments on POWs, killing 3,000.


  • 1960s: Mustard gas was used extensively between Egypt and Yemen.
  • 1971: Herbicides such as Agent Orange were used by the U.S. military in Vietnam and destroyed at least 6 percent of South Vietnamese cropland, enough to feed 600,000 people for a year. While not strictly weapons, their after-effects – including cancers and birth defects – are similar.
  • 1975: Indonesia annexed East Timor; planes spread herbicides on croplands.


  • 1980s: Iraq used sarin gas in its war with Iran.
  • 1988: Iraq used mustard gas against its Kurdish minority in Halabjah.
  • 1995: A Japanese cult used sarin gas to kill a dozen people and injure 5,500 in a Tokyo subway.
  • 2001: In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, anthrax spores were sent by mail to political and media targets around the U.S., resulting in infections and deaths.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security web site

A chemical attack is the deliberate release of a toxic gas, liquid or solid that can poison people and the environment.