Throughout history, scientific advances have been both a means of helping and destroying society. In all of the three major scientific disciplines, weapons of mass destruction have been created. In physics nuclear weapons were created, in biology viruses were created and turned into weapons, and in chemistry, elements were mixed together to create poisonous gases and toxins. In modern times the most widespread uses of these types of weapons have been with chemical weapons because they are the cheapest and easiest to produce. The first large-scale usage of chemical weapons came during World War I, forty years later the Nazis used cyanide gas in WWII against Jews. The United States used Agent Orange against the Vietnamese, and later in the 1980s, the Iraqis gassed the Iranians and Kurds. In 1995 a religious cult let off a chemical bomb in a Tokyo subway, and currently, the biggest fear of chemical weapons is from the possibility of their use in a terrorist attack.
There are a few different types of chemical weapons. The most dangerous type of chemical weapons is nerve agents that can cause death in seconds and are odourless and tasteless. Nerve agents disrupt the functions of the nervous systems and shut down all vital body functions. The most common type is blistering agents which were commonly used in WWI and cause most organic tissue that comes in contact with the chemical to burn and blister. Other types include choking agents, blood agents, and toxins.
Although some chemical weapons were developed as early as 1855 the first time they were used in battle to deliberately kill soldiers was during World War I. In 1915 the Germans launched their first chemical attack against the British. By 1918 at the end of the war, almost a million people had been killed or injured by poisonous gases. The most common type of chemical weapon was mustard gas that was put on shells, which were fired at the enemy. Mustard gas is considered a blistering agent because it burns any part of the skin, lungs, or eyes that it comes in contact with.
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After the horrors of gas attacks in WWI, the allies and axis powers refrained from using any chemical weapons during battle. During this same time, however, the largest genocide in the history of the world was taking place with the use of chemical agents. The Nazis used chemical pesticides to kill millions of Jews in gas chambers in concentration camps.
During the Vietnam War, the United States developed a chemical called Agent Orange, which they classified as a defoliant. Agent Orange was dropped on large patches of forest where it would quickly kill all the plants and foliage in the area making the enemy more visible. At the time the United States said it was fairly safe for humans but many people who were in areas where Agent Orange was dropped have developed certain cancers and other diseases that are now attributed to the chemical.
In Nixon’s term of office, he passed a declaration forbidding the development and use of chemical weapons in the United States and many countries passed similar declarations. For a time it seemed as though the fears of chemical weapons had faded but in the Middle East, Iraq was developing chemical weapons for its war against Iran. Iraq used both older mustard gas type chemical and newer nerve gases for attacks on Iran and also on Kurdish populations living in Iraq. Some people have also speculated that Iraq used chemical weapons on the United States during the Gulf War but these allegations have never been proven.
The first terrorist attack with the use of chemical weapons occurred in March of 1995 when a nerve gas releasing bomb was found on the busy Tokyo subway. It was found that the package contained a diluted form of Sarin, a deadly chemical nerve agent. The subway attack was perpetrated by members of a doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo. The attacked killed 5 people and affected almost 5,000 others.
In the wake of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, there have been heightened fears of possible chemical or biological terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden. Chemical and biological weapons are called the “poor man’s nukes” because they could have as much destructive force as a nuclear weapon but are much easier and cheaper to produce which makes them very attractive to terrorists. A large scale attack on a huge metropolitan city such as New York could possibly kill millions of people. In response to these threats, the government is spending billions of dollars to prevent a terrorist from getting the chemicals needed to create weapons of mass destructions and training emergency personnel to deal with possible chemical or biological attacks.
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