Sat, Sep 21, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Sarin gas: history of a chemical weapon

The UN has confirmed that the deadly nerve agent sarin was used to kill hundreds of Syrians last month. The history of this weapon’s use is a global story and often chilling

By Ian Sample  /  The Guardian

The details of the exposure continue, recorded in minute, excruciating detail. Miraculously, the man survived after being hooked up to an “iron lung” resuscitator at a hospital. Nearly three hours after the accident, the report notes: “The patient appeared alert and oriented although he complained of severe malaise.” The man held the unenviable title of the most severe sarin casualty of the time.

The US was not the only country to experiment with sarin in the cold war years. The USSR produced the agent for chemical warfare. And the UK took an interest too. A year after the incident at Dugway, a 20-year-old Royal Air Force engineer called Ronald Maddison took part in an experiment at Porton Down, the UK’s chemical warfare facility in Wiltshire. At 10:17am on May 6, Porton scientists dripped liquid sarin on to the arms of Maddison and five others who, for the scientists’ safety, were held in a sealed gas chamber. Maddison fell ill and slumped over the table. He was taken to the on-site hospital but died at 11am. In 2004, more than 50 years later, an inquest found that the Ministry of Defence had unlawfully killed Maddison after one of the longest cover-ups in cold war history.

Accidents and unethical experiments gave only a glimpse of the horrors that scientists had made possible with the invention of sarin. In the hands of a nation’s military, sarin and other agents were a means to kill swiftly such large numbers of people that the figures are quoted as rounded hundreds, even thousands. Then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s bombardment of Halabja in northern Iraq lasted two days in 1988 and killed 5,000 people. The attack against the Kurdish people was recognized as an act of genocide by the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal in 2010. It was the largest chemical weapons attack against civilians in history.

In 1993, 162 countries signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlawed the manufacture and stockpiling of chemical weapons. Gradually, nations began to destroy their stocks, itself a complex and dangerous task. Engineers came up with some blunt, but effective ways of dealing with the problem. One is to strap explosives to rockets, shells or canisters filled with chemical agents and blow them up in an armored blast chamber. Another is to burn the munitions in an armored kiln. Stores of chemicals held in barrels are incinerated or “neutralized” by mixing them with other chemicals. Sophisticated facilities use airtight vessels and process their waste, but they are a luxury. In Iraq in the 1990s, chemical agents were mixed with petrol and burned in a furnace built from bricks in a trench in the desert.

The convention did not put the raw chemicals for sarin out of reach. Two years later, in 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo sect punctured bags of homemade sarin in the Tokyo subway. Though only a dozen people were killed, more than 5,500 sought medical help, the vast majority being the “worried well” who feared they had been exposed.

The psychological impact did not end with the attack. Kenichiro Taneda, a doctor at St Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo, recalled the awful realisation that he would have to wheel a young woman who had died in the emergency department past a large crowd to reach the hospital mortuary. So as not to cause more worry he “transferred her by keeping an oxygen mask on her face and covering her body with a blanket.”

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