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No Tern Unstoned: Hitting a raw nerve

OPINION:  While some claim that warfare drives scientific progress, it was the search for new insecticides that led to the development of the deadly nerve agents such as those deployed on the streets of Salisbury last week, writes Miles King.

Salisbury is a fairly sleepy place. Tourists come to see the spectacular cathedral, mediaeval streets and bustling market. Few, presumably, knew that in a quiet suburban backstreet lived a Russian double agent who sold secrets to the British Intelligence service MI6, who was once imprisoned, then released in a spy swap. And no-one would have imagined that it would be the scene for the first ever chemical weapons attack on UK soil.

Chemical warfare has a surprisingly long history (the first records are from ancient Greece), but industrial chemistry over the past 100 years or so created the conditions for chemists to create a wide range of agents, from the lethal to the incapacitating. Few started with the intention of creating such deadly chemicals, working instead for what they saw as improving the lot of humanity.

So it was in the late 1930s when German chemists were researching a new generation of powerful insecticides. Using the chemistry of phosphorus (which, perhaps unsurprisingly - is still used as a chemical weapon in its pure form of White Phosphorus) chemists discovered an entirely new range of compounds known as organophosphates, OPs for short.

Organophosphate insecticides were highly effective at killing crop and livestock pests  - so effective that they were widely produced and used worldwide. Only later did it become apparent that they were not only highly effective at killing pests, but were also killing and maiming the farmers using them.

One particular group of British farmers suffered greatly from using sheep dip based on OPs. And despite Government chemists warning of the dangers of using OPs as insecticides as far back as 1951, the use of these highly dangerous chemicals continued for another 50 years. Some farmers claimed that when they raised concerns with Government officials they were told they must continued to use the insecticides against particular pests, such as Sheep Scab and Warble Fly - “dipping” sheep with OP insecticide was mandatory from the late 1970s until 1992. At least 500 sheep farmers were left with life changing illnesses as a result of their exposure to these chemicals. Some are still fighting for a public inquiry into the scandal, to better understand how the damage wrought to their lives and families was allowed to happen.

While the dangers of OP-based insecticides was not necessarily appreciated at the time they were discovered, the lethality of related compounds became immediately apparent. These were given the names Sarin, Tabun and Soman and were the first of a new type of chemical weapon known as nerve agents.

Tabun is named from the word Taboo - forbidden. Without going into too much detail about how they work, these nerve agents interfere with the normal activity of nerves within the body, particularly those which control things that we take for granted without thinking about - breathing, our heartbeat and automatic reactions to stimuli, such as blinking in response to a bright light.

Although these nerve agents were not used during the Second World War, their discovery by allied scientists led to further research on related compounds. In 1952 scientists at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in Britain (not the Chemical Weapons research centre at Porton Down as some claim) created a new family of OPs - which in time became known as the V agents. One was sold commercially as a high powered insecticide, known as Amiton. Another became the nerve agent VX.

While these nerve agents have been used in warfare - most recently in Syria - they have also been used in assassinations. VX was used last year by the North Koreans to assassinate the President’s half-brother, in a brazen attack at Kuala Lumpur airport.

Which brings us back to Salisbury.

Last Sunday, retired Russian military intelligence Colonel Sergei Skripal was enjoying time with his daughter who was visiting from Russia last when they were both exposed to a nerve agent - it’s still unclear how it was administered. After having lunch and visiting a nearby pub, the pair were found slumped on a park bench and rushed to hospital. Over the next few days it became clear that some sort of chemical agent had been used on them - one of the police officers who attended the scene had also been contaminated and became seriously ill. Another 500 people who had also visited the restaurant and pub are  being asked to wash their clothes, in case they picked up any traces of the weapon.

Some have suggested it might have been a poison attack, as had previously been the case with Russian dissidents (14 mysterious deaths of Russian individuals in London plus Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned with radioactive Polonium in a cup of tea). But the symptoms described by eyewitnesses all bear the hallmark of nerve agents - difficulty breathing, stiff limbs, staring eyes and heart failure.

As VX would have killed both of the victims relatively quickly, it seems unlikely that this was the agent used. Sarin is a possibility, but Home Secretary Amber Rudd has already indicated that analysis by scientists at the former chemical and biological weapons research facility at Porton Down (just a few miles down the road from Salisbury) suggests something rarer and more exotic. This may point towards a new family of nerve agents developed by the Russians in the 1990s known as Novichok (“newbies”) compounds.  Some of these are even more potent than VX. Given how long it has taken for the authorities to make public what they know about the agent, how long its lasts in the environment and how toxic it is, points towards something unusual. Even so, questions are being asked as to why it took a week to warn members of the public who might have accidentally picked up traces of the chemical, to wipe their mobile phones with baby wipes.

While all of these exotic chemicals have been deliberately synthesised - either for good (insecticide) or ill (chemical weapons), nature also does a pretty good job creating equally deadly compounds.

Ricin  - a compound found in the Castor Oil Plant, was used in the assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov - infamously injected into his leg using an umbrella firing a poisoned platinum pellet.

Other exotic but deadly compounds whose use as a poison has been explored include Tetrodotoxin, derived from the liver of the Japanese Puffer Fish. And of course chemicals which are safe, even desired in very tiny quantities - such as the Benzyl alcohol which contributes to the scent of flowers such as Jasmine and Roses, can be toxic in large quantities.

Everything is made from one kind of chemical or another - and all living things have incredibly complicated, and beautiful, chemistry. Chemicals are neither good or bad, they are essential to life, because life is, at a very basic level, chemistry.

Chemicals can have good uses (creating the fragrances in perfumes) but even when chemicals are produced with good intentions, they can turn out to be deadly (OP insecticides.)

There are no good uses for chemicals like Sarin or VX though, which is why the Chemical Weapons Convention was agreed back in 1993. As recently as last September, Russia was praised for apparently destroying its remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons. That this convention has been flouted so cynically on the streets of Britain should give us all food for thought.


While all of these exotic chemicals have been deliberately synthesised - either for good (insecticide) or ill (chemical weapons), nature also does a pretty good job creating equally deadly compounds.

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