War with Iraq Could Unleash Chemical and Biological Weapons, but One U.S. Expert Sees No Cause for Panic

updated 01/21/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/21/1991 01:00AM

Since the start of the Kuwait crisis last summer, experts have voiced fears that a full-scale war might entail the use of chemical weapons, which both sides possess. Last week, American officials reemphasized that they would never authorize the use of such weapons in the gulf. Iraq, on the other hand, used chemical agents repeatedly during its eight-year war with Iran and even against its own Kurdish minority. To assess this threat, correspondent Gayle Verner spoke recently with Prof. Matthew Meselson, a biochemist at Harvard University and one of the world's leading experts in the field of chemical and biological weapons. A strong supporter of banning chemical and biological agents, Meselson, 60, has served over the past 28 years as a consultant to the State Department, the White House and the U.S. Army.

How do chemical and biological weapons work?

Both depend on poisoning or infection for their effect—not on blasts, heat or blowing a hole through you with a piece of metal. One example of a chemical weapon is nerve gas, which can kill within a minute or so if inhaled. It paralyzes your nervous system; your lungs fill up with fluid, and the diaphragm muscle, which helps you breathe, won't work anymore. Another chemical weapon the Iraqis have is a blistering agent called mustard gas. It's called that because when it was used in World War I, soldiers thought it smelled like mustard. It generally doesn't kill, but causes chemical burns within a few hours. It can debilitate troops by causing severe blisters and temporary blindness.

Biological weapons, on the other hand, are bacteria or viruses that get into your body and reproduce. They have never been used as weapons, so our knowledge is sketchy. The potential biological weapon that's been talked about in the gulf is the bacteria anthrax—a disease usually associated with livestock. If you inhale enough of its microscopic spores, it can be lethal, causing massive hemorrhaging and shock. There's also a toxin called botulin, derived from the bacteria that causes the food poisoning known as botulism. Slower acting than nerve agents, it can escalate from paralysis and coma to death within two or three days.

How potent are these agents?

In some cases, very. With the nerve agents sarin and tabun, for instance, you only need to inhale a few milligrams and you start twitching and convulsing. You're dead within minutes. Botulin is also very potent. It takes less than a millionth of a gram to cause death.

How are these weapons delivered?

Nerve agents and mustard gas are released as liquids into the air by explosion of bombs, shells or rockets. Some agents, like sarin, evaporate quickly, forming a gas cloud that can kill anyone who inhales it. Other chemical agents, like mustard, evaporate slowly, producing both a gas cloud and liquid droplets. In the case of biological agents, though, it's largely theory. They have never been used in combat, so they might fizzle. Take botulin. While it is a very deadly poison, it is also very difficult to make a weapon out of the stuff. The toxin quickly loses its potency when it's released into the air.

What are our defenses against these weapons?

The first and foremost defense is the gas mask. It keeps all chemical and biological agents from being inhaled. That's critical, because the lungs are many times more sensitive to these agents than the skin. Some people at first feel claustrophobic in a gas mask, but in almost all cases that disappears with just a few hours of training. To protect the skin against chemical agents, special clothing is effective. It consists of an outer layer of twill, an inner layer containing charcoal, and weighs about as much as a three-piece winter suit. Such masks and suits can reduce casualties to very low levels.

Is there anything else?

We have antidotes and vaccines for use against some chemical and biological agents. Our soldiers are equipped with a syringe containing an antidote which counters the action of nerve gas. It must be injected immediately if the gas is inhaled. There are vaccines for anthrax and botulism, and antibiotics are effective against anthrax.

How will troops know when to put on the special gear?

Each unit will have detectors that can pick up mustard and other chemical agents. One of the best detectors is a handheld device weighing a couple of pounds. It either flashes a light or sounds an alarm when it detects something.

Given all the difficulties in using such weapons and the protective steps that can be taken, what are the chances that Iraq will resort to them?

Low, I think. It is conceivable that Iraq might use them against civilian targets, but I doubt it. To use them against American forces would be foolish because we are well protected and the public reaction would be so overwhelming that it would mean the total destruction of the Iraqi regime.

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