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Chemical Warfare &Terrorism: the risks cannot be ignored

Paper No.412         08.02.2002

by Sangeeta Debashis

The potential for chemical disasters to cause severe health hazard and environmental damage has been realised from numerous accidents in the past in India itself.   On December 3rd 1984, the world’s worst chemical disaster caused a gas tragedy in the city of Bhopal in India. From this unfortunate chilling experience of gas tragedy due to Methyl isocyanate (MIC) Indians should be aware how disastrous the consequences will be in chemical terrorism.

 In Bhopal, 8000 people died immediately after the disaster, and after 16 years the death toll has risen to 20,000.  Deaths are still being reported.  The worst aspect of the whole incident  is that the researchers have found  that chromosomal aberrations in the exposed population may affect the lives to come. The numbers affected were a lot more than the anthrax attacks in America recently in which only13 persons were affected and four people died.  

Chemo terrorism is the easiest and can be followed by other types of terrorism ranging from psycho to nuclear. The sizeable chemical industry (agrochemical, industrial, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, paints and dyes, industrial gases etc.) a source of dual use chemicals and technologies could be of proliferation concerns for some countries. Since the September 11 attacks, the threat of terrorists using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN)  materials appear to be rising. Several of the terrorist organizations and other non-state actors worldwide have expressed an interest in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials. 

As the terrorist’s capabilities can not be predicted, so is their contacts. It is not the question of who but with what ,when and how? The materials required are either purchased, stolen or synthesised. The chemicals can be obtained from local to international markets.  For example in India as well as in other countries pesticides can be obtained easily and these can be of use for agro terrorism. 

India is more open to chemical terrorism for the following reasons.

* Indian industries produce enormous amounts of dual use chemicals.

* The chemicals are easily available and cheap.

* Access to such chemicals is hardly regulated and no verifiable record is kept.

* There are many small scale industries which keep no account of sale and vigilance is also lax.

* While government controlled industries and major companies have periodic safety regulations and inspections, the smaller ones in the small scale sector have virtually no such control.

Why Chemical Weapons? Chemical weapons are weapons of choice of terrorists, according to the OPWC’s (The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ) Mikhail Berdennikov, as they are small but deadly, require immediate response from the authorities, no antibiotics to treat and if “properly” used they may not harm the terrorist. The potential for casualties are more than the biological ones, whereas in the case of nuclear weapons, strict vigilance and difficulty in accessibility makes the task more difficult. 

Chemical weapons (CW) consist of chemical agents and delivery systems.  Chemical agents that might be used by terrorists, range from warfare agents to toxic chemicals commonly used in industry to cause physiological changes in humans and animals. 

Chemical warfare agents are of different types and named according to their toxic effects as blistering, nerve, choking, blood agents and riot control agents. (Annexure I)  OPCW has categorised them as Schedule 1, 2, 3. 

Schedule 1: Chemicals easily used as chemical weapons and have very limited, if any, uses for peaceful purposes, e.g. nitrogen mustard for cancer, saxitoxin, ricin, used as valuable research tool.

Schedule 2: Chemicals are precursors to, or that, in some cases, can themselves be used as, chemical weapons’ agents, e.g. BZ is a neurotoxic, and also in manufacture of a pharmaceutical product, thiodiglycol, a mustard gas precursor and an ingredient in water-based inks, dyes and some pesticides.

Schedule 3: chemicals can be used to produce or can themselves be used as, chemical weapons, but which are widely used for peaceful purposes (including in herbicides, insecticides, paints, coatings, textiles and lubricants), e.g. phosgene and hydrogen cyanide.

Effectiveness of chemical weapons is controlled by a number of factors, including age, purity, weather conditions, wind direction, means of dissemination (liquids, vapors, gases and aerosols), and other factors. Some of the weapons can take hours to kill, and people exposed can sometimes survive, given proper treatment and antidotes. (Annexure1) 

Historical Memories: CW were used in the ancient times (in the form of poisoned arrows and bullets), W War I (extensive use of poison gas), W War II( new and more toxic nerve gases were developed), in various civil wars.  In 1990 the LTTE is said to be the first group to introduce and use chlorine gas against the Sri Lankan Army in Kiran. Then in1993, Islamic Fundamentalist groups tried to use hydrocyanic acid but in vain.  Now the evidence found from the ruins of Afghanistan houses, it is getting clearer that terrorists or rogue countries can misuse science and technology in chemical terrorism.  . The various diagrams, documents, literature and some of the chemicals (ricin etc.) found from the hideouts used by the Al Qaeda men and the visit Pakistan scientists showed the keen interest the terrorists had in the weapons of mass destruction. Their plans were to dissipate the chemicals in form balloons or bomb through air.  (Annexure II)

Chemical weapons and international conventions: Many states maintain chemical weapons in their arsenals to deter the use of this type of weapon against them, and to provide a retaliatory capability if deterrence failed.

At a recent symposium convened by the UN Department of Disarmament Affairs (DDA), experts were virtually unanimous in agreeing that the legal framework to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear, biological and chemical weapons exists. Under UN auspices, the international community has negotiated more than a dozen treaties and protocols. (Annexure III)

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) came into force on 29 April 1997.  By December 31, 2001, the number of States Parties and States waiting to become States Parties now stands at 145. There are, however, suspicions that several other countries are also in possession of or developing chemical weapons, and have failed to declare these activities. The OPCW was set up to monitor the Chemical Weapons Convention. It tracks materials which terrorists can use to make chemical weapons, and ensures that such materials are not diverted from legitimate to prohibited purposes.  

India’s concerns: India has a well-developed chemical industry and the production of chemicals is in bulk for the domestic consumption and for Defence forces. India became one of the original signatories of the in 1993, and ratified it on 02 September 1996. The treaty came into force on April 29, 1997. India acknowledged its own chemical warfare programme in 1997 and stated that related facilities would be open for inspection.

It is believed that Pakistan has used these chemical weapons against Indian soldiers in Siachen in 1987(CSIS , FAS reports) and after that only the search for protective measures was seriously considered.  Again, in June 1999, the FAS reported that Pakistan levelled allegations that India had used or was planning to use chemical weapons against the Mujahideen and Pakistani army elements fighting at the Kashmir border. Pakistan had accused India of firing chemical shells in its campaign to dislodge hundreds of suspected infiltrators from positions on the Indian side of the line of control in Kashmir (BBC, June 1999 ).   India - a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention,  has denied the accusation. Pakistan has produced no evidence for its allegation.

The Indian government has set up Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) warfare directorates in each of its military services, and an inter-Services coordination committee to monitor the program. The Indian Army established a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) cell at Army HQ to study the effects of NBC warfare.

Experimental studies of hazardous chemicals and developing suitable antidotes against chemical warfare agents such as antidotes for cyanide, nerve agents, sulphur mustard and toxic metals are being undertaken  by the DRDE ( a branch of DRDO).  Rapid diagnostic tests kits for pathogenic organisms and remedial /preventive measures, e.g., kits like water poison detection kit (WPDK), residual vapour detection kit (RVD), personal decontamination kit (PDK) Portable decontamination apparatus (DAP) decontamination formulations’ synthesis, structural elucidation and toxicological evaluation of toxic chemicals have also been developed. In various institutes like AIIMS the development for antidote and training for countering the chemical attack by the medical and paramedical personnel have also been undertaken.

Conclusion:  The devastating impact of chemicals, their easy accessibility and at minimal cost is yet to be realized by various agencies in India.  The effect of chemical weapons manifests itself within hours, rather than days as with biological weapons. Therefore the chemical attack which is more disastrous than the biological, needs more preparedness in all sectors, i.e., police, fire, and EMS personnel.  There has also to be “public awareness”  programmes, as India by its very nature is vulnerable to such terrorist attacks using chemicals.

Annexure I: Shows the various agents, means of exposure, treatment and their availability in the market.

Annexure II: Chemicals Used in Various Wars.

Annexure III:  History of Various Protocols and Conventions

Annexure I:  Shows the various agents, means of exposure, treatment and their availability in the market 

Name   Means of  Exposures   Treatment/Antidotes  Commercial Uses of Chemicals or Precursor Chemicals
Blister agents: That cause blisters on the skin and damaged the respiratory tract, mucous membranes, and eyes.

Sulfur Mustard (HD)

Schedule 1

Skin contact and/or inhalation   No known antidote decontamination using water, prevent infection by antibiotics, application of lotions/ointments to soothe blisters.   No known antidote decontamination using water, prevent infection by antibiotics, application of lotions/ointments to soothe blisters.  
Lewisite Schedule 1 Skin contact and/or inhalation   Ceramics, insecticides, pharmaceuticals
Nitrogen Mustard (HN-3) Schedule 1 Skin contact and/or inhalation   Toiletries, insecticides, waxes, polishes, lubricants, cosmetics.
Mustard- Lewisite (HL) Schedule 1 Skin contact and/or inhalation     Paper and rubber manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, insecticides, plastics, detergents, cosmetics, ceramics, lubricants.

Phosgene oxime (CX )  

Schedule 1

Skin contact and/or inhalation      
Nerve Agents:  Lethal substances that disable enzymes responsible for the transmission of nerve impulses.
Tabun (GA)  Schedule 1 Skin contact and/or inhalation

4 steps to management of exposure to nerve agents: Decontamination,ventilation antidotes,  supportive therapy .

Therapeutic drug options: Atropine and Pralidoxime Chloride (auto injectors packaged together in kits provided to military personnel) Diazepam (anticonvulsant drug) Pretreatment option: Pyridostigmine (can increase the lethal dose threshold significantly)  


Insecticides, gasoline additives, detergents, missile fuel, plastics, dyes, and pigments.
Sarin (GB) Schedule 1 Skin contact and/or inhalation   Fire retardants, insecticides, disinfectants, paint solvents, ceramics, optical brighteners.
Soman (GD) Schedule 1 Skin contact and/or inhalation   Fire retardants, paint solvents, ceramics, disinfectants, textile softeners.  


Schedule 1

Skin contact and/or inhalation   Insecticides, pyrotechnics, textile softeners, pharmaceuticals.
Novichok agents Skin contact and/or inhalation Assumed to be similar to treatment methods for other nerve agents listed above . Fertilizers, pesticides
Choking Agents:  Substances that damage respiratory tract, causing extensive fluid build-up in the lungs.  
Chlorine  inhalation No antidote once exposed Individuals should don gas masks and other protective gear to prevent inhalation.  Medical responses include: Relocation to decontaminated environment, enforced rest. Management of secretions in airways, Oxygen therapy Prevention/treatment of pulmonary edema.  Disinfectants, plastics, pesticides, solvents, chemical synthesis.  
Phosgene (CG)  Schedule 3 inhalation   Plastics, pesticides, dyes, and herbicides.  
Diphosgene (DP)    Schedule 3 inhalation   Plastics, pesticides, dyes, and herbicides.
Chloropicrin (PS) Schedule 3 inhalation   Disinfectant, chemical synthesis.  
Blood Agents:  Agents that interfere with the absorption of oxygen into the blood stream.  
Hydrogen Cyanide (AC) Schedule 3 inhalation Agents are highly volatile; flush eyes with water; remove contaminated clothing; rinse exposed skin with water Antidotes: intravenous administration of sodium nitrite & sodium thiosulphate for detoxification purposes (i.e., to assist body's ability to excrete cyanide from system) Pretreatment under development in the United Kingdom.   Pesticides, fumigating, electroplating, gold and silver extraction.
Cyanogen Chloride (CK) Schedule 3 inhalation     Dyes and pigments, nylon production.
Riot Control (Incapacitating) Agents:  Substances that rapidly produce temporary disabling effects.
Tear Agent 2 (CN) inhalation Relocate to fresh air. Thorough washing of exposed eyes and skin with water. Effects generally dissipate within 15 to 30 minutes of departure from contaminated area   Commercially available as mace.
Tear Agent O
Psychedelic Agent 3 (BZ) Schedule 2 inhalation   Pharmaceuticals, tranquilizers  

Annexure II:   Chemicals Used in Various Wars.    



Who Used

on Whom

Ancient Times

poisons in arrows and bullets



Pelopnnesia War

(431-404 BC)

Arsenic smoke



Siege of Constantinople

(630 AD)

mixture of petroleum, pitch, sulphur & resins




W War I (1914-1918)


Chlorine Gas

Sulfur Mustard, Hydrogen Cyanide







mustard gas

Italian troops

against Abyssinia (Ethiopia)

1937- 1945

Sulfur Mustard, Lewisite


against China

W War II (1939-1944)

Nerve Gases tabun, sarin, soman, hydrogen cyanide

Germans, also stockpiled






1960s Vietnam War

herbicides, tear gases




Iran -Iraq War1984,85, 87


mustard gas, tabu



Iran and 

Kurdish minority


Chlorine gas


Sri Lanka Army


tried HCN hydro cyanic acid but failed

Islamic fundamentalist Terrorists




Sabin, in Tokyo Subway

cult Aum Shirinkyo

Japan civilian 12 killed



Al Qaeda and also from bin Laden biography

Ricin and various nerve gases

VARIOUS SCIENTISTS EVIDENCES from the places which were used as hideouts by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.


Annexure III:  History of Various Protocol and  Conventions




Brussel convention

General ban on chemicals as weapons


First International Peace Conference, Hague

Abstain from using projectile and spread of deleterious gases


Versailles Treaty, Germany

Ban on production and importing of CW


Geneva Protocol

Prohibition of the use of gases.

Limitation ;not for production, development & stockpiling


Geneva Protocol again

Complete Ban


Geneva Protocol

Eighteen Nations Disarmament Committee (ENDC), The membership of this body was named as  CD (Conference on Disarmament)  

for conducting multilateral disarmament negotiations. Interest in nuclear weapons increased


Japan signed GP



Various drafts for convention came forward

the negotiators in Geneva focused on a chemical weapons treaty.


Soviet Union

Various drafts








Bilateral talks bet. Two Super Powers US/Soviet Union

total Ban on CW




drafted chemical weapon Convention CWC


USSR accepted

systematic inspections, storage and production facilities, and the total destruction,, as well as declarations and routine inspections at commercial chemical industry sites.


Wyoming Memorandum between US/USSR to increase confidence

Two Phase exchange of data holdings, stockpiles and facilities, and mutual inspections.


France accepted to uphold the authority of the Geneva Protocol

finalised the concept of a Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

January 1989

Canberra Conference, Australia

Ad Hoc Committee drafted convention Conference on Disarmament for submission to the UN General Assembly

finalised  the concept of a Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.


Draft presented by the Ad Hoc Committee to the Conference on Disarmament for submission to the UN General Assembly


by June 1992.

The Convention on the Prohibition of Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction was accepted by the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on 3 September 1992. On 13 January 1993 the Chemical Weapons Convention was opened for signature at a ceremony in Paris, presided over by President Mitterand. Over the next two days, it was signed by 130 states. It is a  first disarmament agreement to be negotiated within a multilateral  framework.

The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force on 29 April 1997.
 Members & Signatories of the CWC: 145 by December 31, 2001.