Potential Chemical Weapons

An overview of some potential developments to be kept under observation

A serious long-term threat might be implied by substances which are poorly bound to active carbon. In order to pass through the filter of a protective mask, the substance must consist of small, non-polar molecules, which have high volatility. This implies that it is difficult to attain lethal concentrations in the ambient air (compare, for example, hydrogen cyanide). On the other hand, they could achieve an incapacitating effect on a small scale, e.g., in order to achieve sabotage against units that were already protected.

If substances capable of penetrating modern protective masks can be identified, then there are also opportunities to intensify research on improved protection. Thus, for example, new substances with which the filters in protective masks can be impregnated can be developed, as well as substances which better adsorb or break down cw agents. If this is successful, then the threat is considerably reduced.

The borderline between BW and CW agents has started to lose importance as a result of the rapid development in biotechnology. This mainly depends on the emergence of a category of agents based on biotechnology. Biotechnology has enabled the largescale production of new types of substances. Toxic compounds of natural origin which were earlier difficult to produce, e.g., toxins and bioregulators, can now be produced in large quantities. Many of these substances exceed the toxicity of nerve agents by several orders of magnitude.

Biotechnology has also offered opportunities to produce bacteria, viruses, etc., in modified form. The gene material of microorganisms can be modified so that new bacteria or viruses are created, against which man has no immune defence. In addition, the bacteria can be changed so that they themselves can produce toxins while they multiply in the body. In comparison with pure toxin, only a very small dose of bacteria is then needed to achieve full toxic effect.

There are large opportunities to further develop weapons based on biotechnology. After studies of structure-activity relationships for certain toxins and substances produced within the body, it is possible to develop modified and even more active substances. Improved knowledge of receptors on the cell surface, for example as a result of cancer research, will make possible to target toxic substances to selected organs.

Weapons based on biotechnology today are probably still within the research or developmental stages. In the long-term, they may become a serious threat. Factors supporting this are that such substances:

  • are active in very low concentrations,
  • can cause poisoning which is difficult to diagnose and treat,
  • can be completely broken down within the body,
  • usually lack antidotes for medical protection and treatment,
  • are difficult to detect in the environment.

Factors suggesting that their use may not arise are:

  • their range of use is limited, e.g., to sabotage,
  • suitable substances are rapidly broken down by the enzyme system in the gastro-intestinal tract and lungs,
  • exposure via the airways can probably easily be stopped by use of respiratory protective equipment (even if this method of exposure is effective also for large molecules).

Source: A FOA Briefing Book on Chemical Weapons