Chemical & Biological weapons

This page contains information about chemical and biological weapons. Click on any heading to bring up more information.

Chemical weapons

Chemical weapons, such as nerve gas and tear gas, have been formulated to inflict harm or death to humans. They can be widely dispersed in gas, liquid and solid forms.

History of chemical weapons

First World War (1914-1918): Chemical weapons are commonly used against enemy troops. The method of delivery evolves as the war develops. The Germans initially open cans of chlorine gas when the wind is blowing towards Allied troops. The French then put phosgene into a standard shell. The Germans do most of the work on chemical weapons and in 1917 use mustard gas for the first time.

1925 – League of Nations (early UN) meets in Geneva: When details of the suffering caused by these weapons becomes known some governments begin moves to ban them and to agree what is known as the Geneva Protocol. Many countries only agree not to use the weapons first, but reserve the right to use them in retaliation. This initial protocol does not ban the manufacture of chemical weapons or the threat of their use, nor does it include details of punishment if a country is to break the protocol.

Second World War (1939-1945): No chemical weapons are used in battle but countries on both sides keep huge stockpiles of them. After the war the British, Russians and others take away stocks found in Germany and begin production plants of their own.

1950s and 1960sDevelopment of chemical weapons continues, including non-lethal weapons such as CS gas created by the British for riot control. Nerve gases, the most dangerous chemical weapon, are also developed out of research on insecticides. During the Vietnam war the US uses ‘Agent Orange’ to destroy the vegetation concealing the North Vietnamese. This contains the chemical dioxin, which causes deaths and deformities.

1980s: Stocks of chemical weapons are destroyed but there are continuing reports of their use. The most famous of these is the attack by Iraq on the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988.

1992: After 12 years of negotiation the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is adopted. Tougher than the 1925 treaty, the UN describes it as: “The first disarmament agreement… for the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction under universally applied international control”. It does not cover the use of CS and similar gases when used for law enforcement.

1995: Members of Aum Shinrikyo, a religious cult, attack the Tokyo subway system by releasing sarin, a deadly nerve agent. Twelve people are killed and around 6,000 injured. In 1998, the Japanese government finds and destroys the facilities used to produce the sarin.

Which countries have chemical weapons?

While these countries have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is likely that many have not yet destroyed all their chemical weapons. To find out more see the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Chemical weapon treaties 

Geneva Protocol
Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.

  • Opened for signature: 1925
  • Entered into force: 8 Feb 1928, and for each country as they sign it.
  • As of 2010, 137 states had ratified, acceded to, or succeeded to the treaty.

Chemical Weapons Convention

  • Opened for signature: 1993
  • Entered into force: 1997
  • Number of countries ratified: 188

What are the effects of these weapons?

Chemical weapons can be split into four main categories with different types producing different effects:

  • Vesicants (e.g. sulphur mustard): causes blisters and burning of the skin, eyes, throat and lungs. Death can result from lungs filling with fluid. Can cause blindness. Sulphur mustard can cause cancers and birth defects/cancers in the children of those exposed.
  • Choking agents (e.g. chlorine and phosgene): irritates the eyes, throat and lungs. Death can result from the lungs filling with fluid.
  • Blood agents: stops oxygen getting to tissue and vital organs.
  • Nerve agents: the most dangerous and fatal, even in very small amounts. Causes convulsions and death by respiratory paralysis. Can be absorbed through the skin and penetrates clothing.

In the First World War, when the chlorine gas cloud reached the Allied lines, a yellow fluid formed in soldiers’ lungs and there was burning of the eyes, nose and throat before they choked to death.

Mustard gas was also used and is known as a ‘blister agent’ because it attacks the skin causing burns and blisters. One of its perceived advantages is that, instead of killing, it creates many injuries that need treatment, taking up valuable time and money.

However, it can take up to 12 hours before any symptoms are evident. This was particularly noticeable during the Iran-Iraq war. The Iranians suffered terrible casualties as troops continued to wear their uniforms and breathe normally, despite the fact they were covered in mustard.

Recently some troops have worn special clothing to protect them from chemical weapons, but this can impair movement and inhibit fighting ability.

Testing and research in Britain

In Britain research into chemical weapons has been carried out at Porton Down, a Ministry of Defence (MoD) facility in Wiltshire since 1916. Much of this work is top secret but some aspects of it have become public in recent years.

After the First World War, volunteers for trials came from the armed forces. Early work looked at the effects of agents such as mustard gas. The MoD estimates between 6-8,000 volunteers may have been exposed to mustard.

After the Second World War nerve agents became the focus. The MoD says around 3,400 people took part in these tests from 1945-1989. In 1953 a volunteer from the RAF, 20-year-old Ronald Maddison, took part in what he thought was research into curing the common cold. About 200 milligrams of the nerve agent sarin was dripped onto his skin and he died within 45 minutes.

It took years for the truth to be uncovered. In 1999 Wiltshire police launched an investigation into 25 selected cases between 1939 and 1989. An inquest into the death of Ronald Maddison began in May 2004 and ruled he was unlawfully killed.

In February 2006 three ex-servicemen were awarded compensation in an out-of-court settlement after claims they were given LSD without their consent during the 1950s.

At least 20,000 armed service personnel took part as volunteers at Porton Down and hundreds of animals have also been used in experiments.

Biological weapons

Biological weapons are made of living organisms that spread disease among humans, animals or plants. They are far more deadly than chemical weapons – just a small amount could do as much damage as a chemical weapon a thousand times bigger.

History of biological weapons

There are accounts of biological warfare as far back as 300-400 BC, when parts of human or animal bodies were used as tips for arrows or to poison water supplies. Later there were instances of the bodies of those who died from plague being catapulted into besieged cities.

18th century: The British give blankets to Native Americans that have been used by smallpox victims in an attempt to cause disease. There are suspicions and allegations of similar attempts during the American Civil War.

Second World War (1939-1945): Despite the Geneva Protocol banning the use of biological weapons in 1925, during World War II Japan runs a research unit where prisoners are exposed to plague and anthrax. By D-Day, the US has large amounts of anthrax and botulin. In 1942 the British test anthrax bombs. As a result of these tests, Gruinard Island off the coast of Scotland is quarantined until it is declared safe again in 1990, 48 years later.

1969: After strong protests about the use of herbicides in Vietnam, the US bans the production, development and stockpiling of biological weapons. This leads to a series of agreements culminating in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972.

1972 onwards: Under the terms of the BWC countries are not allowed to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire biological agents for use against an enemy. They must destroy any existing stocks and cannot transfer any material to other countries. However, there are no formal verification measures and countries do not have to declare any current or previous possession.

2001: In the US anthrax is sent through the post to senators and newspaper offices, leading to the deaths of five people. Panic spreads throughout the country, showing just how quickly an attack could destabilise a nation.

Today: The US continues to prevent attempts to add an effective verification protocol to the BWC. Reports suggest they are planning biological activities that could violate the BWC, including developing and testing new and existing biological weapons agents for defensive reasons under the Homeland Security Department.

Mark Wheelis, a professor of microbiology at the University of California, Davis is quoted as saying: This is absolutely without any question what one would do to develop an offensive biological weapons capability. We’re going to develop new pathogens for various purposes. We’re going to develop new ways of packaging them, new ways of disseminating them. We’re going to harden them to environmental degradation. We’ll be prepared to go offensive at the drop of a hat if we so desire.

Which countries have biological weapons?

It is very difficult to get verification on who has biological weapons, even from countries that have signed the BWC. The US believes about 17 countries still possess them including Russia, Israel, Egypt, China, Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea.

Biological weapon treaties

Geneva Protocol: Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.

  • Opened for signature: 1925
  • Entered into force: 1928 and for each country as it signs
  • November 2010: 137 states ratified, acceded to, or succeeded to the treaty

Biological Weapons Convention

  • Opened for signature: 1972
  • Entered into force: 1975
  • Number of countries ratified: 163

What are the effects of these weapons?

Biological weapons spread disease among humans, animals or plants. Diseases may occur when a population is exposed to infectious microorganisms or chemicals that are manufactured by such organisms:

  • With microorganisms (such as bacteria, viruses or fungi) the symptoms of the disease become apparent after an incubation period, during which time the organisms are multiplying.
  • With toxins symptoms generally appear more rapidly. Among people and animals the effects of disease may range from incapacitation to death. Although toxins cannot reproduce within their targets like microorganisms can, they are generally more lethal.

Toxins can kill within minutes or hours whereas microorganisms can be present for days or weeks before symptoms appear. This means that a biological attack can occur before anyone realises, or even be thought to be an outbreak of disease. Such an attack can have an impact long after it takes place.

The impact also depends on what form the attack takes. Biological weapons can be delivered in a missile warhead, in the form of a bomb, or through aerosol dispersal.

Most biological agents have to be breathed in or ingested to cause an effect. Some examples include:

  • Anthrax: A bacterial agent that, although not contagious, is lethal if inhaled. Contact with the skin is also likely to cause infection.
  • Smallpox: A highly contagious viral agent. It has a very high death rate and travels through air easily.
  • Plague: A bacterial agent that is highly contagious. It causes a type of pneumonia that is lethal if not caught early. Its incubation period is 1-5 days.
  • Ebola: A fever caused by a viral agent. This leads to bleeding from all orifices. There is no cure or treatment.
  • Botulinum: A toxin that causes muscular paralysis resulting in death.


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