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Chemical warfare

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Soldiers wearing gas masks
A Swedish Army soldier wearing a chemical agent protective suit (C-vätskeskydd) and protection mask (skyddsmask 90).

Chemical warfare means using chemical compounds in war to cause injury or death. The chemicals used are not explosive, but they are poisonous. The use of living things or organic matter is biological warfare, but using poisonous products of living things is chemical warfare.


Chemical warfare differs from conventional weapons or nuclear weapons because their effect is not due to explosive force. The offensive use of living organisms (such as anthrax) is considered biological warfare. However, the use of nonliving toxic products produced by living organisms (e.g. toxins such as botulinum toxin, ricin, and saxitoxin) is considered chemical warfare under the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Under this Convention, any toxic chemical, regardless of its origin, is considered a chemical weapon unless it is used for legal purposes (the General Purpose Criterion).[1]

About 70 different chemicals have been used or stockpiled as chemical warfare agents during the 20th century. The entire class has been scheduled for elimination by the CWC.[2]

Under the Convention, chemicals that are toxic enough to be used as chemical weapons, or that may be used to manufacture such chemicals, are divided into three groups according to their purpose and treatment:

  • Schedule 1 – Have few, if any, legitimate uses. These may only be produced or used for research, medical, pharmaceutical or protective purposes (i.e. testing of chemical weapons sensors and protective clothing). Examples include nerve agents, ricin, lewisite and mustard gas. Any production over 100 g must be reported to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). A country may have a stockpile of no more than one tonne of these chemicals.
  • Schedule 2 – Have no large-scale industrial uses, but may have legitimate small-scale uses. Examples include dimethyl methylphosphonate, a precursor to sarin but which is also used as a flame retardant and Thiodiglycol which is a precursor chemical used in the manufacture of mustard gas but is also widely used as a solvent in inks.
  • Schedule 3 – Have legitimate large-scale industrial uses. Examples include phosgene and chloropicrin. Both have been used as chemical weapons but phosgene is an important precursor in the manufacture of plastics and chloropicrin is used as a fumigant. The OPCW must be notified of, and may inspect, any plant producing more than 30 tonnes per year.


Chemical warfare technology timeline
Agents Dissemination Protection Detection
1914 Chlorine
Mustard gas
Wind dispersal Gas masks, urinated-on gauze Smell
1918 Lewisite Chemical shells Gas mask
Rosin oil clothing
smell of geraniums
1920s   Projectiles w/ central bursters CC-2 clothing  
1930s G-series nerve agents Aircraft bombs   Blister agent detectors
Color change paper
1940s   Missile warheads
Spray tanks
Protective ointment (mustard)
Collective protection
Gas mask w/ Whetlerite
1960s V-series nerve agents Aerodynamic Gas mask w/ water supply Nerve gas alarm
1980s   Binary munitions Improved gas masks
(protection, fit, comfort)
Laser detection
1990s Novichok nerve agents      


Although crude chemical warfare has been employed in many parts of the world for thousands of years,[3] "modern" chemical warfare began during World War I - see Chemical weapons in World War I.

Initially, only well-known commercially available chemicals and their variants were used. These included chlorine and phosgene gas. The methods used to disperse these agents during battle were relatively unrefined and inefficient. Even so, casualties could be heavy, due to the mainly static troop positions which were characteristic features of trench warfare.

Germany, the first side to employ chemical warfare on the battlefield,[4] simply opened canisters of chlorine upwind of the opposing side and let the prevailing winds do the dissemination. Soon after, the French modified artillery munitions to contain phosgene – a much more effective method that became the principal means of delivery.[5]

Since the development of modern chemical warfare in World War I, nations have pursued research and development on chemical weapons that falls into four major categories: new and more deadly agents; more efficient methods of delivering agents to the target (dissemination); more reliable means of defense against chemical weapons; and more sensitive and accurate means of detecting chemical agents. Germany was the first to produce chemical agents.

Use in antiquity

The first form of chemical warfare was in the form of poisoned arrows, and spear-tips, during the Stone age. These were dipped in poison (like that from snakes or scorpions. Sometimes poisonous plants were used. The Ancient Chinese used various forms of poisonous smokes, when they besieged a city. Ancient Greeks used a form of burning wood, pitch, and sulphur.

World War One

Poison gas was first used in World War One. France was the first country to make this type of gas. However, Germany was the first to use it in battle on March 15th, 1915, when they used tear gas against France. It was included in some of the new, deadly weapons of World War One.

The three types of gas used in World War One were chlorine gas (tear gas), phosgene gas, and mustard gas. Tear gas made a person cough and go blind very fast. Phosgene caused a person to cough and choke much worse than tear gas. Mustard gas was the worst gas because it almost impossible to protect against. It caused sores on the outside and inside of the body.

Modern use

They were not used very much in World War II, apart by the Japanese army during the invasion of China. This was because, everybody was afraid that the other side would use weapons like theirs. Also, chemical weapons were not easy to use. The time taken to use them, slowed the advance of one's own troops. The raw materials for producing chemical weapons were not easy to get. This was because World War II was fought in areas which were not connected well by railroads.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq used chemical weapons, but not Iran.[6] Many people believe that Iraq used chemical weapons against Kurdish people.

According to international law, it is wrong to use chemical weapons. There are many rules that ban the production, import and use of chemical weapons. Of these the most important is the Chemical Weapons Convention(CWC).

United States has been an active user of chemical weapons like Agent Orange even after World War II. However, when UN formed a working group in 1980 that works for making the number of chemical weapons in the world less, On April 4, 1984 the President of United States, Ronald Reagan called for a worldwide ban on chemical weapons. After this, negotiations between various countries started. The Chemical Weapons Convention was signed in 1993 and came into effect in 1997. Experts believe that 70,000 metric tons of chemical weapons are known to be present totally in this world. Out of this, 8000 metric tons have been destroyed in the past few years. By 2003, United States had destroyed 23% of its total chemical weapons. Other countries like India, South Korea and Russia are destroying chemical weapons under the CWC. Libya is also destroying its weapons in the last few years.

It has been reported that many other countries like People's Republic of China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Serbia and Montenegro have chemical weapons.

Chemical agents

The main types of agents used in chemical warfare are:

If we use chemicals (like Agent Orange or glyphosate) to destroy plants, sometimes human beings may be affected by side-effects. But, we will not call it chemical warfare. Chemical warfare covers only direct attacks on human life.


  1. "Convention on the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and on their destruction (CWC): Annexes and original signatories". Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. Retrieved 19 January 2012.
  2. Disarmament lessons from the Chemical Weapons Convention
  3. Syed, Tanya (2009-01-19), Ancient Persians 'gassed Romans', BBC,, retrieved 2009-02-21
  4. Irwin, Will (22 April 1915), "The Use of Poison Gas", New York Tribune,
  5. Johnson, Jeffrey Allan (1990), The Kaiser's Chemists: Science and Modernization in Imperial Germany, University of North Carolina Press