What Exactly Are Chemical Weapons? A Military Insider Explains What These Killing Tools Actually Do


Once again, chemical weapons are back in the spotlight.

The Nobel Committee on Friday awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for "its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons."

OPCW — a 500 employee organization based in the Netherlands — was founded in 1997 to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international treaty that prohibits the storage, use, and production of chemical weapons, and is currently tasked with destroying Syria's stocks of chemical weapons under a deal brokered by Russia and the U.S.

As a former U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer, I was trained to defuze and destroy any kind of weapon you could encounter on the battlefield and this included a significant amount of time dedicated to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. But I understand that these weapons are complicated, with a haze of public confusion surrounding them.

Definitions and facts matter, and are critical to understanding the chemical weapons discourse. So, what exactly are these Nobel Prize-winning "watchdogs" actually looking for?

For starters, a toxic chemical agent is defined as "any chemical that can cause death, temporary incapacitation, or permanent harm to humans or animals."

One thing you learn early in EOD is that you need to "get in the books" and learn as much as you can about these threats. And one of the most useful publications about chemical weapons is the Department of Defense's Field Manual 3-11.9, "Potential Military Chemical/Biological Agents and Compounds." It's not the most engaging bedtime reading, but it is well worth consulting to see what our government's playbook is. 

With the amount of misunderstanding in the general public and media as to what makes a chemical weapon a chemical weapon, here are some passages taken directly from the field manual.

1. Chemical Warfare (CW) Agents

CW agents are toxic chemicals and their precursors prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention. These agents include choking, nerve, blood, blister, and incapacitating agents. Their physiological actions are as follows:

(a) Choking Agents. Choking agents cause damage to the lungs, irritation to the eyes and the respiratory tract, and pulmonary edema (“dry-land drowning”).

(b) Nerve Agents. Nerve agents inhibit cholinesterase (ChE) enzymes. This inhibition permits acetylcholine (ACh), which transmits many nerve impulses, to collect at its various sites of action. The body’s muscles and glands become overstimulated due to excessive amounts of ACh. At sufficient doses, this can lead to an inability of the body to sustain breathing.

(c) Blood Agents. The blood transports these agents to all body tissues. Hydrogen cyanide (AC) and cyanogen chloride (CK) are cellular poisons, and they disrupt the oxidative processes used by the cells. Arsine (SA) is different. It causes hemolysis of the red blood cells. The central nervous system (CNS) is especially vulnerable to lack of oxygen regardless of the etiology, and respiratory and cardiovascular collapse resulting from AC and CK poisoning. In the case of SA poisoning, the proximal cause of death is myocardial failure.

(d) Blister Agents (vesicants). Blister agents are noted for producing reddening and blistering of the skin, but the eyes and respiratory tract are more sensitive than the skin. Eye exposure results in reddening of the eyes and temporary blindness or permanent effects. Inhaled mustard damages mucous membranes and the respiratory tract.

(e) Incapacitating Agents. Used in a military context, incapacitation is understood to mean inability to perform one’s military mission. Since missions vary, for the purpose of this manual, incapacitation means the inability to perform any military task effectively. An incapacitating agent is an agent that produces temporary physiological or mental effects, or both, which will render individuals incapable of concerted effort in the performance of their assigned duties. Medical treatment is not essential but can facilitate a more rapid recovery.

2. Military Chemical Compounds

Military chemical compounds are less toxic and include materials such as respiratory irritant agents, riot control agents (RCAs), smoke and obscurants, and incendiary materials. The term excludes CW agents. Their physiological actions are as follows:

(a) RCAs (Lacrimators). The RCAs are chemicals that rapidly produce in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure. They are local irritants that, in very low concentrations, act primarily on the eyes, causing intense pain and tearing. At high concentrations they irritate the respiratory tract and the skin. They sometimes cause nausea and vomiting.

(b) Respiratory Irritant Agents. These agents were previously called vomiting agents. Their primary action is irritation of the respiratory tract. In addition, these agents cause lacrimation (tearing), irritation of the eyes, uncontrollable coughing, sneezing, nausea, and a general feeling of bodily discomfort. Usually symptoms disappear in 20 minutes to two hours, leaving no residual injury.

3. Significant Aspects of Biological Agents

A biological agent is a microorganism that causes disease in personnel, plants, or animals or causes the deterioration of material. Biological agents can be classified as pathogens, toxins, bioregulators, or prions

(1) Pathogens. Pathogens are disease-producing microorganisms, such as bacteria, rickettsiae, or viruses. Pathogens are either naturally occurring or altered by random mutation or recombinant DNA techniques.

(2) Toxins. Toxins are poisons formed as a specific secreting product in the metabolism of a vegetable or animal organism, as distinguished from inorganic poisons. Such poisons can also be manufactured by synthetic processes. Toxins are produced by a variety of organisms, including microbes, snakes, insects, spiders, sea creatures, and plants.

(3) Bioregulators. Bioregulators include biochemical compounds that regulate cell processes and physiologically active compounds such as catalysts and enzymes. Although they can be found in the human body in small quantities, introduction of large quantities can cause severe adverse effects or death.

(4) Prions. Prions are proteins that can cause neurodegenerative diseases in humans and animals. Proteins have a unique, genetically defined amino acid sequence that determines their specific shapes and functions. Normal cell proteins have the same amino acid building blocks but they fold differently than prions. When prions enter brain cells, they apparently convert normal proteins into prions. Ultimately, the infected brain cells die and release prions into the tissue. These prions enter, infect, and destroy other brain cells. Prions entered the public’s consciousness during the mad cow epidemic that hit England in 1996. Transmission of the prions from cows to man is suspected to cause human illness. There are no known therapies effective against prions.

4. Significant Aspects of Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TIC)

TIC are chemicals that are toxic to plants, animals, or humans.

Uses: TIC are found in abundance in all countries, and are used in chemical manufacturing processes, agriculture (pesticides), water treatment (chlorination), and many other areas. Each year, more than 70,000 different chemicals amounting to billions of tons of material are produced, processed, or consumed by the global chemical industry. A large portion of these chemicals may exhibit characteristics or be sufficiently hazardous to be a threat in a military situation.

Characteristics: The TIC of military concern may exist as solids, liquids, or gases. For many cases, release of a TIC may involve a change of the state of the chemical, therefore making protection difficult. Like CW agents, TIC include many lethal compounds.

(1) Toxicity. Many TIC, due to their toxicity, can cause incapacitation or death.

(2) Corrosiveness. Many TIC are highly corrosive. Special equipment containers and procedures are necessary to ensure safe handling.

(3) Flammability. Many TIC are highly flammable and present a major fire hazard.

(4) Explosiveness. Unlike CW agents, TIC can be highly explosive and present a serious threat when handled.

(5) Reactivity. Many TIC react violently with water or other materials, and thus present dangers upon contact with other materials, including air.

(6) Byproducts. When burned, mixed, or exploded, many TIC produce additional highly toxic byproducts.

(7) Quantities available. The sheer volume and widespread availability of TIC present a serious danger in the event of a release.

5. Military Chemical Compounds and Their Properties: Smokes, Obscurants, and Incendiaries

Smokes, obscurants, and incendiaries are combat multipliers. Their use provides tactical advantages for offensive and defensive operations. For example, smoke has long been employed as a means of concealing battlefield targets. Fire damage causes casualties and material damage and can impact psychologically. This section contains the physical and chemical properties of selected smokes, obscurants, and incendiaries.

Smokes and Obscurants: Smoke is an aerosol that owes its ability to conceal or obscure to its composition of many small particles suspended in the air. These particles scatter or absorb the light, thus reducing visibility. When the density or amount of smoke material between the observer and the object to be screened exceeds a certain minimum threshold value, the object cannot be seen. Many types and combinations of smokes are used, but the three basic types of screening smokes are hexachloroethane (HC) smoke, phosphorous smoke, and fog oil smoke. White phosphorous (WP) and HC are hygroscopic; they absorb water vapor from the atmosphere. This increases their diameters and makes them more efficient at reflecting light rays. Fog oils are non-hygroscopic and depend upon vaporization techniques to produce extremely small diameter droplets to scatter light rays. Most smokes are not hazardous in concentrations that are useful for obscuring purposes. However, any smoke can be hazardous to health if the concentration is sufficient or if the exposure is long enough. The protective mask gives the respiratory tract and the eyes adequate protection against all smokes.

6. Note Regarding Agent Orange and Napalm

Just in case you want to cite Agent Orange (an herbicide used in massive quantities during the Vietnam War) and/or napalm (an incendiary also used in massive quantities in the Vietnam War) as a “chemical weapon,” don’t. 

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of U.S. actions and policies during the Vietnam War, and yes, some American military personnel in Vietnam were guilty of war crimes in certain instances (Calley, William for starters; or Nick Turse's recent book). But those situations have little or nothing to do with the situation in Syria today.

To see the U.S. government's own deliberations about what to use in Vietnam during the war, take a look at the Foreign Relations of the United States on the State Department's Office of the Historian site.

You could look back at diplomatic cables like this one from 1969 in which riot control agents and defoliants are specifically excluded from being classified as "chemical weapons." There's this cable from 1970 which shows that the use of defoliants and offensive use of RCAs required Presidential approval. 

Maybe the most telling cable is this gem from 1965, which talks about how use of tear gas can forestall the use of high-explosive and flame weapons that are more likely to kill civilians, but the disadvantages according to then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara are "The likelihood of some sharp international criticism, spurred by Communist propaganda, of the U.S. Government authorizing the employment of what will inevitably be called 'poison gas.'"

Sound familiar?

As much as it feels emotionally true to say America's use of Agent Orange, napalm, Willie Pete, and CS gas in Vietnam constitutes "chemical weapons attacks," the dictionary and international law disagree.