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Viewpoints: Lethal nerve agents leave world on edge

By Frank J. Dinan

In the mid-1930s, IG Farben, then the world’s leading chemical conglomerate, sought to develop phosphorus-based insecticides that would be lethal to insects but harmless to humans. What this research program led to was a long way from that intention – it resulted in the development of the most lethal chemicals then known, nerve agents.

Tabun, the first nerve agent, was discovered accidently in 1936 by IG Farben chemists. On a fateful day, a single drop of tabun fell unnoticed on a laboratory floor. It nearly killed Gerhard Schrader, its creator, and his laboratory assistant, hospitalizing them both for several weeks.

Tabun’s amazingly toxic nature was quickly reported to the Nazi military, and a plant for its production was secretly built in Dyhernfurth in present day Poland. Tabun and, later, sarin – even more deadly – were produced there in hundreds of pounds per month quantities. They were rapidly weaponized and distributed to secret underground storage dumps throughout occupied Europe. Worker poisonings and deaths in the factory confirmed tabun’s fast-acting toxicity. While earlier chemical agents took hours to days to kill, tabun killed in minutes.

Tabun- and sarin-containing artillery shells, bombs, undetectable land mines and machine gun bullets were developed and ready for use in 1943 but, surprisingly, Hitler never used them.

The Allies had no knowledge that nerve agents existed until Russian troops overran the Dyhernfurth production facility in 1945. The Red Army, realizing what it had stumbled upon, disassembled the factory and sent it back to Russia.

An outstanding German chemist, Richard Kuhn, studied nerve agents to determine how they exerted their deadly effect. Kuhn had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1938. His studies of tabun and sarin soon revealed that they exerted their deadly effect by blocking the action of an enzyme responsible for blocking the transmission of a nerve impulse after it has passed from one nerve cell to another. This results in nerve cells in the brain and muscles continuing to transmit their impulses long after that transmission should have stopped. This leads to foaming at the mouth, violent twitching, an inability to control bodily functions, contraction of the pupils to mere pinpoints, greatly limiting visibility, and, ultimately, to painful death by suffocation.

Soon after World War II ended, the Cold War began. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were anxious to acquire and develop these potent new chemical weapons. They began to recruit German experts regardless of their Nazi backgrounds. The deadliest known nerve agent, VX, was developed in Great Britain.

The major world powers have abided by the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into force in 1997, banning the production, development, storage and use of nerve agents. Yet some of these chemicals are sufficiently cheap and easy to prepare, so smaller countries and terrorist groups are able to make them in limited quantity.

Sarin was used in the Yemen Civil War in the 1960s; Saddam Hussein used nerve agents against Iran in the 1980s; Iraqi planes attacked the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988 using a combination of sarin and mustard gas to kill thousands; a Japanese cult dispersed impure, homemade sarin in commuter trains in Tokyo in 1995, killing 19 and injuring many more; VX was used by North Korean agents to assassinate the North Korean leader’s half-brother in the Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia in February; and, most recently, Bashar Assad’s air force attacked a rebel-held area with chemical weapons, killing dozens.

Obviously, despite treaties banning their use, nerve agents remain highly effective weapons of choice for those willing to ignore international law.

Frank J. Dinan is an emeritus professor in the Chemistry/Biochemistry Department at Canisius College.

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