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Health Impact of Chemical Weapons

Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World

Published: 2013-05-08 : (Rev. 2017-04-05)

Synopsis and Key Points:

Chemical weapons are classified as arms that use toxic chemical substances to harm or kill people during war.

Main Digest

The news has recently presented numerous articles related to the potential use of chemical weapons by the government of one nation in the Middle East, something that continues to be debated. The stories made me wonder just how nasty these kinds of weapons are and what the health effects are on those who may have been affected by them. Without a doubt, chemical weapons are cruel and have a devastating impact on those exposed to them. What follows are examples of just how nasty chemical weapons are.

Chemical weapons are classified as arms that use toxic chemical substances to harm or kill people during war.

According to the International Chemical Weapons Convention there are more than fifty different chemicals that have been produced with the expressed intent to use them as weapons of war also referred to as, 'chemical weapons agents,' or, 'CWA.'

The majority of chemical weapons have been used either on the battlefields of WWI where greater than one-hundred thousand or 124,000 metric tons were used, have been dumped into the oceans during the 1950's and 1960's - around several hundred thousand metric tons, or were stored chemical nuclear warheads at a Russian stockpile until the 1990's - approximately 70,000 metric tons.

By the summer of 2009, around half of these weapons had been destroyed. The remaining stockpiles are highly dangerous if they are not appropriately guarded and maintained.

How are people most often exposed to these chemicals?

Chemical weapon agents or products of unregulated destruction such as sea-dumping, open-air incineration, or burial of chemicals such as dioxins, as well as furan reaction masses from open-pit burning or dumping are extremely toxic to human beings. Besides the risk of direct exposure, the main risk involves the migration of these chemicals into the ground and the water people drink where they rapidly, 'bio-accumulate,' in the food chain.

One Deadly Example

The dumping of diphosgene, phosgene, as well as picric acid into Lake Mokhovoe in Russia's Penza region released around 740 tons of hydrochloric acid into the lake. In the 1960's the water revealed an extremely low pH-level of 1.5-2.5, something that killed every plant and animal in the entire lake. While the lake has recovered somewhat in the time that has passed, it still remains at an unusually low pH-level of 4.2-4.8. Due to the acidity of the water there are still only a very few primitive life forms to be found in this lake today. The lake is one of the only drinking water sources for greater than 650,000 people of Penza.

The Health Impact of Chemical Weapons - Examples

Chemical agents fall into four general categories, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Upon looking at these categories, one has to wonder why they have been created at all. The certainty of suffering, pain, and death is associated with any chemical weapon that falls into these categories.

Blood Agents: Blood agents include cyanogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, and arsine. The chemicals prevent a person's blood and tissue cells from accepting oxygen and cause rapid organ failure.

Choking Agents: Choking agents include phosgene, chlorine, chloropicrin, and diphosgene. These chemicals are absorbed through a person's lungs and cause the buildup of fluids, leading to choking and eventually - death.

Blister Agents: Blister agents include nitrogen mustard, sulfur mustard, and lewisite. These chemicals burn a person's mucous membranes, skin, and eyes and cause large blisters on any skin that is exposed. When a person inhales these chemicals as a vapor, the chemicals have the ability to burn a person's windpipe and lungs leading to their death.

Nerve Agents: Nerve agents include sarin, tabun, soman, and VX. The chemicals cause muscle paralysis - including paralysis of a person's diaphragm and heart. They also cause seizures and loss of body control. Nerve agents are the most deadly of chemical agents and amounts the size of a small drop comprises a lethal dose that can cause almost immediate death.

Stopping the Chemical Agent Madness

Understanding why humanity struggles with itself, choosing to pursue violence and spending vast amounts of effort and resources on the pursuit of military equipment and methods and means of destruction instead of unifying to work towards the betterment of humanity and the planet is exceptionally difficult. Not everyone on Planet Earth has succumbed to the military madness that seems to prevail.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an international treaty that specifically aims to eliminate military-deployable chemical weapons by prohibiting, 'the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons." As of August 2009 there were 188 member states out of 195 countries and four countries with declared Chemical Weapons stockpiles.

Green Cross Switzerland and partner organizations Green Cross Russia and Global Green USA have played key parts in facilitating the timely and safe destruction of chemical weapons in both Russia and America. These two nations together possess greater than 90% of the global chemical weapons stockpiles. In the year 2000, Green Cross Switzerland launched, 'Destroy Chemical Weapons Now,' an international information campaign with the goal of raising awareness of the approximately 70,000 tons of toxic chemical weapons that were still in existence around the world at that time.

The organization has also encouraged an international partnership toward global chemical disarmament and effective implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Beginning in the year 1997, Green Cross and Global Green established a network of a dozen local and regional public information and outreach offices in Russia and initiated an annual National Dialog meeting, something that brings together all the stakeholders. Since the year 2007, Green Cross has been working with Blacksmith Institute to isolate three open pit burning sites in Russia's Penza region that threaten the drinking water supply of more than 600,000 people through the migration of furanes, dioxins, and arsenic released during the process of incineration into Penza's drinking water.

Any nation that creates, maintains, or dares to use chemical weapons must be considered to be a threat to not only its own population - but other populations around the world as well. There is no justification for the creation, possession, or use of any type of chemical weapon. All stockpiles of chemical weapons must be appropriately destroyed.

Resources and Citations:

Chemical Weapons Elimination - - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides independent oversight to the U.S. chemical weapons elimination program and serves as an important element in ensuring the safe destruction of chemical warfare material for protection of public health.

Public health response to biological and chemical weapons - - The Public health response to biological and chemical weapons: WHO guidance has been revised and published in 2004.

Chemical Warfare - - Chemical/biological warfare is the term used to describe the use of chemical or biological agents as weapons to injure or kill humans, livestock, or plants.

Emergency Room Procedures in Chemical Hazard Emergencies - - If an organophosphate is involved, notify hospital pharmacy that large amounts of atropine and 2-PAM may be needed.

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