Long Poison Era Ended in Handshake (we hope)

IN THE past two decades the spectre of chemical weapons has diminished, although not completely disappeared. Much of the impetus for many nations ceasing production of and destroying chemical weapons came from an agreement signed by US president George H. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years ago today.

There is evidence that the bushmen of Africa first used poison-tipped arrows tens of thousands of years ago, employing chemicals from a poisonous species of frog.

In the 6th century BC Solon of Athens poisoned the water supply of the city of Cirrha, which the Athenians had besieged for 10 years. Solon poisoned their river with the root of the hellebore plant, a strong purgative. The Cirrhans became so weakened by diarrhoea, the Athenians were able to storm the city.

In 423BC the Spartans hurled canisters of burning sulphur over the walls of an Athenian fort and burned coal, sulphur and pitch in fires around the fort to inundate the defenders with choking fumes.

The ancient Chinese were also known to use toxic smoke as early as about 400BC, again to smoke the enemy out of tunnels being dug under besieged cities. They penetrated the tunnels with terracotta pipes and pumped in noxious smoke produced by any number of combinations of burning chemicals.

Various armies experimented with some nasty chemical weapons in medieval times and even the great Renaissance thinker Leonardo da Vinci proposed using sulphide of arsenic and verdigris, the green patina that forms on copper when it is exposed to air. Some armies continued trying to use chemicals on their enemies but it had the danger of rebounding on the army using the chemicals if the wind blew the wrong way, or if they had poisoned the local food and water so that it couldn't be used by either side. Because of the ability of these weapons to go wrong and because they often relied on stealth, some commanders thought of them as underhanded and beneath their dignity.

In 1854, in the Crimean War, proposals by British chemist Lyon Playfair to shell enemy ships with exploding cannisters that would spread cyanide gas were dismissed as being as devious as poisoning a well.

But it was in the 20th century when chemicals became capable of mass destruction and became a feared part of the military arsenal. Advances in the isolation of chemicals and gases, and the production of large quantities of toxic substances, made it possible to create weapons capable of affecting thousands of soldiers, which could be delivered from a safe distance.

In World War I the Germans were first to use gas, poisoning enemy soldiers with a range of substances including chlorine, phosgene and a kind of sulphurous substance known as mustard gas.

The Germans used the gas in violation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 banning the use of poisonous gases in war. After World War I there were more attempts to come to some international agreement banning chemical weapons, such as the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

But before, during and after World War II many nations experimented with, stockpiled and occasionally still used chemical weapons. Those stockpiles grew during the Cold War. Many countries, including Australia, took the lead of the US and the Soviet Union, stockpiling poisonous arsenals, although most were afraid to use them for fear of international condemnation. The Americans have been condemned for their use of herbicides in Vietnam. Iraq was condemned for using gas in its war with Iran and against the rebel Kurds within Iraq in the 1980s.

When the Soviet Union began to crumble, chemical weapons came up for negotiation. In the White House on June 1, 1990, Gorbachev and Bush signed the treaty agreeing to stop making chemical weapons and to destroy 80 per cent of US and Soviet stockpiles.

Credit: Troy Lennon

Indexing (document details)

Subjects: Biological & chemical weapons,  Gases,  Poisons
Author(s): Troy Lennon
Document types: News
Section: Features
Publication title: The Daily Telegraph. Surry Hills, N.S.W.: Jun 1, 2010.  pg. 44
Edition: 1 - State
Source type: Newspaper
ProQuest document ID: 2045823381
Text Word Count 637