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From agricultural research to an agent of war: nerve gas

On 04 March 2018, a former Russia spy was poisoned outside of London.

Nicotine, the tobacco compound that makes cigarettes addictive, is a natural insecticide. In the 1930s, a German chemist wanted to create synthetic insecticide that was cheaper than nicotine. Instead, Gerhard Schrader created a weapon of war.

On December 23rd 1936, he obtained a clear, colourless liquid, which in even very dilute solution killed 100% of leaf lice on contact… Schrader and his assistant had to stop work for 3 weeks. Further tests on mammals showed it was far too toxic to be used as a commercial insecticide.

Schrader would become the father of two nerve agents, tabun and sarin. Nazi armed forces began building factories to manufacture them as weapons of war but World War II ended before they could be completed. The sarin plant “fell into the hands of Soviet forces that overran Poland and Germany.”

Nerve agents or gases disrupt the body’s communication system whereby nerves “transfer messages across the gaps between cells.” The molecule acetylcholine (in news due to Covid-19) is the messenger; the enzyme acetylcholinesterase destroys acetylcholine after it has passed along its message. Without acetylcholinesterase, the nervous system would become fatally overstimulated.

Nerve agents keep acetylcholinesterase from working.

In World War I, every major country used chemical weapons; more than 90,000 died and 1 million suffered injury. Subsequently, the 1925 Geneva Protocol  prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons.

The United States did not sign that agreement.

After World War II, countries returned to the negotiating table. The result? The 1949 Geneva Conventions. The United States signed this one. 

In the 1950s, agricultural research again led to the development of a nerve gas, VX. Like tabun and sarin, it was too toxic to be used in agriculture. The UK’s Porton Down Chemical Weapons Research Centre, founded in 1916 and “the oldest chemical warfare research installation in the world,” picked up the research.

From 1945 to 1989, Porton exposed more than 3,400 human “guinea pigs” to nerve gas. It seems probable that Porton has tested more human subjects with nerve gas, for the longest period of time, than any other scientific establishment in the world. Two other nations have admitted testing nerve gas on humans: the American military exposed about 1,100 soldiers between 1945 and 1975, and Canada tested a small number before 1968. Other countries, including France, the old Soviet Union and Iraq, are also likely to have exposed humans to nerve gas, but very little is known about their tests.

Subsequently, the UK passed VX to the US government.

Between 1961 and 1969, the U.S. military spent $2 billion on chemical weapons. In 2022 dollars, that’s $16-19 billion.

On 13 March 1968, the US Army conducted a weapons test in Utah at the Dugway Proving Ground, the Army’s largest base for chemical and biological weapons testing. A high-speed jet sprayed 320 gallons of nerve gas VX across the grounds. It accidentally released the gas at a higher altitude than intended.

About 30 miles from the Army base, 6,000 sheep died.

After the Dugway sheep made headlines, Rep. Richard McCarthy (D-NY) pushed for a Congressional investigation. One finding: the Army had a disposal program called CHASE. This is how our toxic waste wound up on ships bound for ocean waters: Cut Holes And Sink ’Em.

In recent history, high profile assasination attempts periodically remind the public of the perils crossing Russia.

In November 2006, former spy Alexander Litvinenko died after being poisoned in London.

The 43-year-old had been an officer with the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, but he fled to Britain where he became a fierce critic of the Kremlin. In his final years he also became a British citizen.

After he was killed by radioactive polonium-210, believed to have been administered in a cup of tea, it emerged the father-of-one was being paid by the British secret service MI6… the killing was probably approved by President Vladimir Putin.

On 04 March 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a park bench in southwestern England. British authorities said this was a case of attempted murder using a nerve agent.

That September, Britain accused Russians Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (in absentia) of conspiracy to murder, attempted murder, and use of the nerve agent Novichok.

Officials concluded that the two were in the employ of Russia’s military intelligence service.


#scitech, #society  (043/365)

📷 US Army, Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant Unpack Area

Daily posts, 2022-2023


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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