clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Chemical warfare has a long and terrifying history

Chemical warfare has a long history, probably starting with the first stone-age warrior who smeared the juice of poisonous berries on his spearhead.

One of the earliest recorded examples of chemical warfare dates to about 429 B.C., during the Peloponnesian War. Thebes was besieging the city Plataea and unable to penetrate the town's defenses.

As Thucydides reported in "History of the Peloponnesian War" (translated by Richard Crawley in 1910), the Thebans "determined to try to effects of fire and see whether they could not, with the help of a wind, burn the town. . . . (they) lighted the wood by setting fire to it with sulphur and pitch.

"The consequence was a fire greater than anyone had ever yet seen produced by human agency. . . . A great part of the town became entirely inaccessible, and had a wind blown upon it, in accordance with the hopes of the enemy, nothing could have saved them."

But a thunderstorm intervened, putting out the choking fumes.

Sulfur also was a component to the chemical weapon known to the Eastern Roman empire as "Greek Fire." A mixture that also included naphtha and quicklime, the Byzantines shot it from bronze tubes mounted on their warships. They destroyed two Arab fleets with it in 678 and 717-18.

During World War I, 1914-18, both sides used poison gas, notably chlorine. One estimate is that 100,000 were killed and 900,000 injured by the blinding, choking fumes. Often soldiers were killed immediately by the drifting clouds of green-gray gas, but many died of pneumonia weeks after they were attacked because their lungs were damaged.

The combatants also used mustard agent, which burns skin and and lung tissue, and breaks the body's white blood cells and lymph tissues.

Italians gassed barefoot Ethiopian soldiers in the 1930s. Gas was used in the Iraq-Iran War. In 1987-88, Saddam Hussein's troops reportedly used poison gas on Kurds in Iraq.

When World War II began, President Franklin Roosevelt announced this country would not be the first to use poison gas, but would respond in kind if American troops were attacked. In a war that featured saturation bombing, incendiary bombing, terror rocket attacks and the atomic bomb, poison gas was not used.

Although neither side actually fired chemical weapons in World War II, Germans killed tens of thousands of concentration camp victims with Zyklon-B. Reportedly, Japanese also killed 3,000 prisoners of war in Zyklon-B experiments.

In one of the strangest tragedies of World War II, scores of Americans were killed by this country's own chemical weapons.

On Dec. 2,1943, German bombers attacked American ships in the harbor at Bari, Italy. As summarized on an Internet site maintained by professor John H. Lienhard of the University of Houston, the bombers sank 16 ships, partially destroyed four others and set off two major explosions. Fires burned while rescuers pulled hundreds of sailors from the harbor.

"At first, many of the survivors seemed to be all right, though a few mentioned the odd smell of garlic," Lienhard wrote.

"Soon they began showing symptoms — stinging eyes, skin lesions, a variety of internal problems. Four survivors died later the first day, nine the next. By the end of a month 83 men, out of the 617 who'd made it to the hospital, had died."

One of the ships had carried 100 tons of mustard gas, which the Army later said was carried as a deterrent, according to Lienhard.

The United States built up an enormous stockpile of nerve and blister agent in the years after World War I. These deadly weapons were collected at nine Army bases including Tooele Army Depot in Utah's western desert.

About 44 percent of these deadly chemical weapons were collected at Tooele Army Depot. The arms storage area later was renamed Deseret Chemical Depot.

By the middle 1990s, munitions and chemical agent stored at Deseret Chemical Depot amounted to 13,616 tons of VX and GB nerve agent, mustard and Lewisite (made by mixing mustard agent with arsenic).

All are deadly. VX is so toxic that a minute drop of it on the skin can kill.

The chemicals were in steel containers holding about one ton of GB, and in battlefield weapons — spray tanks to be mounted on airplanes; projectiles; cartridges; land mines; rockets. Of 30,000 rockets at the Tooele base, at least 1,000 leaked. When leakers are discovered, to contain the vapors they are placed in special devices called "overpacks."

In 1985, Congress passed Public Law 99-145, which requires the destruction of all chemical arms. In 1993, this country signed the Chemical Weapons Convention; the Senate ratified the treaty in 1997. This international treaty commits signatory countries to the safe destruction of their chemical arms by 2007.

The Army decided the safest method was to destroy the material where it was stored, rather than move it to some central location and get rid of it there.

A prototype incinerator was built at Johnston Atoll. It began to burn chemical arms in 1990.

The Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System ended its task on Nov. 29. It had safely destroyed 412,732 rockets, projectiles, bombs, mortars, ton containers and land mines containing chemical agent, according to the plant's project manager, Gary McCloskey.

Johnston Island's weapons held 2,031 tons of chemical agent, less than 15 percent of the amount originally stored in Tooele County.

Utah's Deseret Chemical Depot near Stockton, Tooele County, is the location of storage igloos holding those thousands of chemical weapons. It is also the site of the first such incinerator built in North America.

After years of public hearings, environmental assessments and hearings, the $1 billion plant — its formal name is the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility — began destroying chemical weapons on Aug. 22, 1996.

Lewisite will not be burned because arsenic is a deadly element, which cannot be destroyed by incineration. Utah's lewisite will be eliminated by chemical neutralization. Special processing facilities are to be built for it at the Chemical Agent Munitions Disposal System at Deseret Chemical Depot.

The Tooele incinerator has been a continuous source of controversy. Yet it is getting the job done. If no unforeseen circumstances interfere, the incinerator should complete its work by early 2004.


E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com