Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans is a 9-part series on the history and consequences of decommissioned unconventional munitions disposed at sea.
Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans Part 6: The Arms Race covers the most commonly weaponized chemicals.
Though Western powers never again intentionally deployed chemical weapons post World War I, the arms race continued in laboratories worldwide. Both Axis and Allied powers produced massive stockpiles of increasingly deadly toxins, and effort continued during the Cold War. By the mid 1960’s, it was apparent that the arms race had settled upon a WMD of choice—nuclear missiles—and that the sheer destructive power of atomic weaponry completely eclipsed the scale in which chemical munitions could be employed. Despite their waning favor in light of the new strategic landscape, innovations in chemical weaponry now enabled a significant breadth of capability and lethality.
Chlorine gas, as described earlier in the chapter, held a short-lived position as a favored chemical weapon of war. Despite being relatively easy to produce and deploy, it is also relatively easy to filter with a standard-issue gas mask. Even a water-soaked (or better yet, urine-soaked) handkerchief held to the face largely prevented the chemical from entering the target’s respiratory system.
In the course of the arms race between offensive poison gasses and passive defenses (including gas masks and protective rubber gear), scientists mixed in “maskbreakers,” vomiting or tear agents designed to penetrate protective rubber gear and induce uncontrollable retching. The target would remove their mask to prevent asphyxiation, after which the choking agent enters their upper respiratory system as intended. Phosgene (a highly toxic gas with similar effects) further increased lethality, but these choking gasses still fell from favor with the development of blister agents.
Mustard gas (or sulfur mustard) became the preferred weapon of World War I’s industrialized battleground. Classified as a blister agent, the substance is not truly a gas, but a colorless and odorless liquid. Typically mixed with other chemicals, sulfur mustard takes on a brown color and garlic-like smell when aerosolized, and can be delivered by bombs, rockets or shells. Its liquid composition makes it ideal for area-denial attacks, the purposeful contamination of strategic locations to prevent usage by the enemy. Unlike choking gasses (which could be effectively filtered out by gas masks) mustard gas seeps through cotton fabrics and is easily absorbed by the skin. A gas mask might protect the face and upper respiratory system, but does nothing to protect the rest of the body. Horrifying, yellow fluid-filled blisters erupt across all affected areas of the body, closely resembling first and second-degree burns. Although mustard gas was designed as a non-lethal, causality-producing weapon, exposure to more than 50% of the body’s surface area is typically fatal.
At the microscopic scale, absorbed mustard gas breaks down the genetic building blocks of the cells, preventing division and sparking apoptis, or programmed cell death. No antidote has ever been discovered, treatment is decontamination followed by standard burn care. Even if the victim survives, they often spend a lifetime facing the ramifications of DNA damage, which include melanoma, cancerous tumors and birth defects.
Post-war, the lethality of mustard gas was “improved” with the invention of lewisite, a blister agent capable of penetrating protective rubber coverings. Large quantities were manufactured, but the chemical (known as the “dew of death” and best remembered for smelling like geraniums) never saw action until the Iran-Iraq War. As popular opinion on the use of poison gasses soured in the lull between world wars, lewisite’s inventor (ironically a Catholic priest) defended his terrible creation publicly as an instrument of humanity:
“By the introduction of gas an other modern instruments of warfare,” contended Father Niewland, “a progressively small percentage of combatants have been killed. In biblical times, thousands of men met in the middle of a plain and slashed one another until only a few were left standing. Today, the primary aim is not to kill but to incapacitate. And poison gas is an ideal method of achieving that aim. If a man goes to a hospital suffering from gas, he is as useless as if he were dead and to care for him, several other persons must be kept out of the battle lines. The chances are ultimately the victim will recover.”
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Once immersed in seawater, the longevity of mustard gas is quite extraordinary. To reach the active chemicals, seawater must first corrode through the protective metal casing of the munition (or other containing device.) While dissolved mustard gas lasts only a few minutes in pure water, the salt content and freezing temperatures of the deep ocean turns those minutes into hours. Once solidified (further slowing the dissolution process) pure mustard gas may last weeks or years.
Few sulfur mustard mixtures were pure. Additives like montan wax (also used in shoe polish) and polystyrene (an ubiquitous plastic polymer) allow the seawater-immersed agent to form a thick, tarry, leather-like protective crust, making it virtually indestructible for an indefinite period of time.
The pinnacle of this effort came with the Nazi’s “winter mixture” of mustard gas, a blend designed for the freezing temperatures of the soon-to-be-doomed Russian campaign. Reportedly, the mixture contains nearly 40% arsenic and is nearly insoluble.
Humanity is owed grudging admiration for never purposefully inventing nerve agents. These agents were discovered practically by accident during pesticide studies just prior to World War 2, and only weaponized after their debilitating side effects discovered. Different varieties aside, all nerve agents operated in essentially the same manner, that is to block acetylcholinesterase, a biological enzyme that breaks down the muscle-contraction neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Affected muscles contract but cannot release—initial symptoms of exposure include tightness in the chest, pinpoint pupils and nausea. The ugly process then turns to running noses, weeping eyes, drooling, urination, defecation and vomiting. Eyes burn and skin blisters until the victim expires of asphyxiation, able to breath out but not in. Victims are found curled up, bound fast by their own knotted muscle contractions.
Nerve gas sarin is a particularly deadly recipe. The colorless and odorless gas achieves lethality in doses as small as half a milligram, making the substance an astounding 26 times as lethal as cyanide gas. Despite this staggering advance in destructive capability, Sarin gas quickly evaporated during deployment, preventing its use as an area-denial weapon. Work began on an even more deadly gas—a persistent, sticky, oil-based substance designated VX gas. Not only was VX incredibly difficult to decontaminate once deployed, the new recipe had the added bonus of being a hundredfold as deadly as Sarin when absorbed through the skin.
Military scientists also developed so-called “blood agents” cyanogen chloride and cydrogen cyanide; brutally simple poisons designed to prevent oxygen from being utilized by the body. Blood agents first affect organs and tissues requiring constant aerobic respiration, including the heart and nervous system. The most famous brand name of such cyanide-based poisons was Zyklon B, the pellet-based pesticide repurposed for use in the gas chambers in many Nazi prison camps. Once sealed in and the gas administered, victims would spend upwards of twenty minutes screaming and climbing over each other. They would oftentimes not even have enough room inside to lie down to die. The process finished, their twisted, expired bodies would be dragged from the chambers dripping froth at the mouth and nose, blood streaming from their ears.
The military experimented with tear gasses as well, but found them lacking. They weren’t quite powerful enough to occupy a strategic niche on the battlefield, and yet were too toxic to be utilized as less-lethal riot control agents.
In the heady, paranoid early years of the Cold War, military policy-makers convinced themselves of the threat of Soviet mind-control drugs. The US and Britain, in what would become one of the more infamous boondoggles of the era, worked in secret to weaponize lysergic acid diethylamide (more commonly known as LSD) and 3-quinuclidinyl benzilater, referred to by the military designation BZ. Both were powerful incapacitating hallucinogenics, the later of which demonstrated a particularly potent stupor-inducing side effect. As with all of the other military misadventures with such chemical weapons of mass destruction, the bulk of the unutilized stock were eventually dumped in open water without fanfare.