A Visit to Nobel Laureate OPCW

Chemical weapons are potentially deadly, especially if they fall into the hands of terrorists. A current example is the conflict in Syria in which chemical weapons were recently deployed. There would be even greater cause for concern if Islamic State were to start using chemical weapons. Who knows where this could lead.

Within the framework of a project week, fifteen pupils from the Natural Sciences profile and five from the Social Sciences profile paid a visit to the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). The project was part of a project called Chemistry in Conflict, as the OPCW was founded with the aim to combat the use of chemical weapons. The OPCW was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in this field.

The Rijswijk laboratory

We made an energetic start on Monday morning. To start off, our history teacher Mr Menke gave a presentation about the first attack with chemical weapons during the First World War and the experiences of the victims. Sadly, chemical weapons are still being used today, in Syria for example.

The OPCW was founded to fight this. 

The OPCW is an international organisation, so everyone spoke English there. The organisation’s job is to track and inventory chemical weapons, and since 1997 it has been working towards expelling all chemical weapons.

The whole group first visited the laboratory and the equipment store in Rijswijk where we were shown films and a presentation on the aims and activities of the organisation. At times it was a little tricky to follow the English, but we asked lots of questions and eventually managed to identify the most important elements from what we saw and heard.

We were also given a guided tour of the laboratory, which is where the scientists do experiments on the samples from conflict areas. It was interesting to see and hear how they use mass spectrometry and gas chromatography in their work. We were also shown the suits the inspectors wear when they travel to the countries they are investigating. The extent of the security measures they need was impressive, as were the risks inherent in investigating such dangerous areas.

Headquarters in The Hague

After the visit to the Rijswijk laboratory, the Natural Sciences and Social Sciences groups split up. The Natural Sciences group returned to school for practice lessons, while the Social Sciences group had a different programme in the afternoon: they cycled to the OPCW headquarters in The Hague. We were thoroughly checked upon arrival, and had to pass a detection gate. 

Once we were inside, we were very warmly received by Jonathan Forman, chemical and technological advisor. He gave us a tour of the building, and showed us the conference hall and the Nobel Prize the OPCW won in 2013. Later, we had an opportunity to speak to various members of staff. Every one of the staff members took the time to explain their job and to answer our questions. The leader of the inspection team, Marinus Potter, impressed us particularly. He gave passionate accounts of his trips abroad and of how an inspection works. We liked the way he answered our questions with counter-questions - that really got us thinking.

In short, it was an instructive, and unique, experience.

The project was concluded with a debate, which you can watch on YouTube (in Dutch):

A fitting conclusion.18 February, 2015. Chemistry in Conflict

Authors: Zané de Roo, Romy Horsten, Inge van Frankenhuijzen and Tirza William. 

Christelijk Lyceum Delft, Netherlands.

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