Chemical Stew: Nerve Agent Brew

Author: Solidus

“Fear of death has been the greatest ally of tyranny past and present.” Sidney Hook

The Greenpeace invasion of Johnston Island came during the golden hour, shortly after the sun rose bringing the gift of light with just the right hardness for perfect photography. The Greenpeace team was sailing to French Polynesia. The ship stopped by the island just long enough to drop a small boat in the water, come ashore, and take some good shots of Greenpeace protestors holding signs expressing the party line on the JACADS plant. JACADS is an acronym for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System. Johnston Island is in the North Pacific Ocean about 717 nm southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii, about one-third of the way from Hawaii to the Marshall Islands.  The report I received in Honolulu said the ‘protest’ lasted maybe a half an hour.

Strange that the destruction of nerve agents like GB, VX and mustard gas should stir protests. Greenpeace, and many others, did not like incineration, the technology being used at JACADS. But, then again, it seemed that any technology that was offered to destroy the agents was hated by some protest group or other. Incineration, cryo-fracturing, they all worked and they all had drawbacks. By the end of its operation, the JACADS plant had removed over 2,000 tons of nerve agents and that is a very good thing. Nerve agents create the illusion that nuclear bombs aren’t so bad after all.

Mankind appears to be committed to eternal cycles of partial self-destruction through global and local war. Back in the day, hominids used rocks and sticks to do each other in. We’ve graduated to nuclear weapons and moved on smartly to chemical concoctions. While we humans can and have fought over everything from romantic rivalries to resources, the big wars break out when power brokers manipulate opposing ideas and ideals held by two or more populations. Beware the purveyor of noble ideas. As soon as I hear the evangelizing of noble ideas to the exclusion of other points-of-view, I become very afraid.  While past preachers of noble ideas, like communism, democracy, Christianity, and Islam, sat safely on the sidelines, millions fought and died. Make no mistake they still do.

Fighting wars requires bigger and better rocks and sticks. Chemical weapons came about because conventional bombs and nuclear weapons are messy.  They are excellent at killing people both quickly and slowly but everything in the blast radius is also blown to bits. Wouldn’t it be sweet if the people could just go away while preserving all that lovely investment in infrastructure? Make it so! And we, the scientists, engineers, and technicians, made it so.

Of the three classes of chemical weapons, GB, VX, and mustard gas, destroyed in the JACADS plant, only mustard gas came from WWI.  While mustard gas was first weaponized and used in war during WWI, it was actually developed during the 1800s. Chlorine was also used during WWI but the big killer, by a two to one margin, was mustard gas. Introduced to the battle field in 1917, the German Army used the nearly odorless, lethal Mustard Gas, Yperite, to great advantage.  The gas required twelve hours to take effect and only a small amount of the Yperite was required for each artillery shell. Once in the soil, mustard gas reduces in potency but remains active for several years. Decades after testing mustard gas in Australia some prisoners were sent onto the test site to grub and clear. They experienced blistering from the residual undisturbed mustard gas in dirt.

Death from exposure to mustard gas requires several weeks of pain and suffering. Vera Brittain was a nurse during WWI. Her autobiography, Testament of Youth [1] describes some of the horror: “I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.”

VX is a super-pesticide and a horrific weapon. A tiny drop, an amount less than can be held on the head of a pin, of this colorless and odorless liquid is lethal. Cyanide gas and potassium cyanide become pikers next to VX, which is over 20 times more deadly. VX is a sticky, heavy liquid/gas that once dispersed snakes its deadly way just above ground level. Once it gets on a surface, it is very tough to get off. If the weather conditions are cool and humid, VX will quickly degrade at a rate similar to the evaporation of water. If the weather is hot and humid, however, VX lasts much longer and evaporates at the rate of motor oil. I think the best place to be during a VX event is Seattle, Washington during the depths of winter.

VX works like any other pesticide. A person may be exposed through skin contact, eye contact, or breathing it in. The degree to which any person may be affected depends on the amount and time of exposure. Clothing can release VX for about 30 minutes after contact with VX vapor, which can lead to exposure of other people. Of course, since it clings to surfaces, using a pencil or sitting at a desk, even many hours after an attack, can expose and spread the agent further. Since VX breaks down slowly in the body, it can have a cumulative effect. According to the CDC[2]: “All the nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of the chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.” The good news, if there is such a thing for nerve agents, is a person exposed to a deadly dose of VX will lose consciousness quickly before horror of the effects of the convulsions, paralysis, and respiratory failure are experienced. The other piece of good news is that, if the victim isn’t killed, they will probably recover completely.

The British came up with the VX killer brew in the early 1950s. While VX gas is one of the most dangerous chemicals ever created, it presented tactical challenges. It is a double edge sword. The same wind used to disperse the agent can suddenly change and blow the chemical back on the aggressors. It is also difficult to use in the field because VX needs to be ‘fresh’. The ‘freshness’ challenge, however, drove the development of binary weapons, where the last ingredient is added as the weapon is in the air on its way to a target. The last issue is strategic. If a country decides to unleash VX against another, the recipient country is likely to morph into a raging monster and launch everything it has, including nuclear, weapons at the aggressor. Hum-mm, thank goodness for sobering thoughts.

GB, also called Sarin, is another super-pesticide that was actually developed in Germany in 1938 for use as a bug killer. Where VX is very viscous, GB is highly volatile but it kills in a similar fashion. GB’s good news is that its volatility means it does not hang around very long after an attack, VX, on the other hand, clings to surfaces and, depending upon weather conditions, may be toxic for days. Sarin (GB) was used twice in Japan recently by a terrorist group. Sarin was released in 1994, in a neighborhood, and again in 1995, in a subway.  Like VX, GB has no color or odor. Unlike VX, GB could be released into the water supply adding another dimension to its tactical uses. Strategically, GB carries the same liability as VX. Isn’t it nice to know we are just big insects in the game of geo-politics?

People are, in general, terrified of nuclear war. Pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the negative images of children picking flowers engraved forever on adjoining walls, haunt us. Moving films allowed people to witness the awe and power released during nuclear and thermonuclear events. Because of extensive multi-media coverage, the hue and cry of outrage and the demand to ban ‘nukes’ echoed around the world. Not so with chemical agents and nerve agent brews, yet this class of weapon is at least as dastardly and its use at least as dishonorable. We say little about the people who coughed their lungs out and died as a result of mustard gas or convulsed to death in their own waste. Chemical agents will not feel real until, like the nuclear story, the populace can view the event or the aftermath. For the most part, the population is shielded from actually seeing the horror of chemical weapons by the government and a news media unwilling to deal with the righteous indignation that would follow. There are some pictures[3] but mostly chemical agent effects are masked in medical jargon and descriptive narrative.

As a Johnston Atoll newbie, I went through the indoctrination on nerve agents. My mask was fitted and calibrated using iso amyl acetate, a chemical that releases a pungent banana fragrance. Lists of symptoms were discussed during movies showing doctors rescuing exposed chimpanzees. Two syringes were provided. Each needle was to be plunged deep into my thigh, one following another at some interval of time, in the event I experienced more than two or three symptoms. The atropine and anti-convulsing potion in the syringe bought time in the event the nerve agents escaped containment. Silly me! The mask, the syringes filled with atropine and an anti-convulsing medication were, primarily, a placebo. Oh yes, what of those chimpanzees brought back from death? They required an atropine injection directly into the heart, which is what a human would also require to survive even a little while.

One day, several young MPs ran through the Johnston Island community shouting that there had been a release. People ran for their masks and kits and showed up in mass at the JOC frightened half to death, they were waiting to be told what to do next. It wasn’t an exercise but it also wasn’t true. As I looked into many waiting eyes that day, I realized that of the three choices to make—sheep, sheepdog, or wolf—I was a sheepdog and even if the sheep turned on me I would always do my level best to replace fear with knowledge and mind the herd.


Afterthought: Following the receipt of different versions of the same question what follows is the rest of the MP story. There were false positives on several sensors that day. A SGT. asked this particular MP detail to find and notify the commander. Out of breath and worried, the MPS hit the mess hall about noon looking for the COL based on everyone’s knowledge of his habits and the time of day. Unfortunately, the COL wasn’t in the mess hall and they told anyone who would listen why it was urgent. Their description of ‘why’ was incorrect and they were yelling. There had not been a leak, it was a sensor malfunction. It was a major error of youthful exuberance. The MPs kept right on trucking and right on with the same story. Everyone responsible was, as you might imagine, disciplined. I never did find out whether or not the first communication error was was the failure of the SGT to get the story straight or with the kids’ listening ability. In any event, everyone, involved or not, was retrained on the art of delivering a message to one’s commanding officer.

[1] Vera Brittain; Testament of Youth; 1933;   Testament of Youth (Penguin Classics)

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Facts About VX;

[3] BBC news; Fourth death sentence for ‘Chemical Ali; 17 January 2010;

5 thoughts on “Chemical Stew: Nerve Agent Brew

  1. Were the MP’s just mistaken or was it their idea of a ‘joke’? If it was a joke, I hope their hands and feet were tied together and they were tossed into the ocean.

    • Looks like I ought to put a note in the article explaining the MPs actions. There were false positives on several sensors and their SGT. asked this detail to find and notify the commander. They hit the mess hall right about noon looking for the COL because of his habits and the time of day. Unfortunately, their description of why it was urgent was incorrect and they were yelling. There had not been a leak, it was a sensor malfunction. It was a major error of youthful exuberance. The MPs kept right on trucking and right on with the same story. Everyone responsible was, as you might imagine, disciplined and retrained on the art of delivering a message to one’s commanding officer. I never did find out whether or not the first communication error was was the failure of the SGT to get the story straight or with the kids’ listening ability.

      • Well when you’re dealing with nerve gas I think I’d rather them be a little more on the exuberance side than the laid back.

        Thank you again for all the stories!

        • Yes, yes, exuberance works much better than conservative approaches for nerve agent. In this case I cannot complain that the government covered anything up. It is I who thank you for reading!

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