Investigation of alleged chlorine attacks in the Idlib Governorate (Syria) in March – May 2015

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

On 29 October, the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) circulated three reports on investigations of alleged chemical weapons (CW) use in Syria. On 5 November Reuters published some details from the one addressing the alleged use of sulphur mustard agent in Marea, a town to the north of Aleppo, on 21 August. The two other reports address a series of incidents between 15 December 2014 and 15 June 2015 at the request of the Syrian government and between 16 March and 20 May 2015 in the Idlib Governorate documented by a variety of non-governmental sources.

For the purpose of clarity, the OPCW maintains a single Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), which has so far produced six reports. Under the FFM, the OPCW may deploy different teams to different locations.

The most recent reports will be released as part of the monthly OPCW reports on Syria to the UN Security Council, presumbly at the end of this month following the special session of the Executive Council on 23 November called to consider the findings.

Incidents in Idlib Governorate, March – May 2015

The Idlib Governorate lies to the south-west of Alleppo. During the spring of 2015 the international press and social media reported a string of incidents suggesting the use of chlorine as a weapon.

This team of the Fact-Finding Mission received its mandate to investigate incidents involving the use of toxicants as a weapon based on open-source media, other sources of information and materials obtained from non-governmental organisations. The investigation could not take place under optimal conditions, because the OPCW inspectors were unable to visit the sites of alleged incidents shortly after their occurrence, take their own samples or review the records onsite. Instead they based themselves on interviews and supplementary materials submitted during the interview process. They were nevertheless able to conclude:

In itself, no one source of information or evidence would lend particularly strong weighting as to whether there was an event that had used a toxic chemical as a weapon. However, taken in their entirety, sufficient facts were collected to conclude that incidents in the Syrian Arab Republic likely involved the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon. There is insufficient evidence to come to any firm conclusions as to the identification of the chemical, although there are factors indicating that the chemical probably contained the element chlorine.

The report documents 17 incidents in 6 locations between 16 March and 20 May 2015. They were responsible for six fatalities.

Idlib 2015 - reported incidents

First depiction of a chemical barrel bomb dropped from helicopters

The report also included a depiction of a so-called barrel bomb, based on the various testimonials and collection of bomb fragments. It notes that the design of the improvised weapon underwent an evolution of their manufacture, probably driven by trial and error. However, only a singly type appears to have been used in the Idlib Governorate between March and May 2015.

OPCW 20151029 Barrel bomb graph

Depiction of a chemical barrel bomb (Source: OPCW)

The configuration consists of 9 gas cylinders (green) presumably filled with poisonous chemicals. The report suggests that they may have been filled with a chlorine or chloride containing compound. The flasks with potassium permanganate (pink) would then have been used to oxidise the chlorine containing compound, resulting in Cl2. The potassium permanganate may be responsible for the purple–red colour occasionally seen in pictures and video footage of impact sites.

This depiction definitely explains how high concentrations of chlorine were achieved locally, earlier assessments of improbability having been based on the assumption of the dropping or firing of single gas cilinders fitted with a light detonator.  Interestingly, the barrel bomb configuration would not have contradicted this assumption, given the individual rigging of gas cylinders (see Brown Moses’ speculation on this in 2014) and the focus of outside observers on those cylinders. To the best of my recollection, only a single report on developments in Syria in 2014 prepared by Human Rights Watch made a passing reference to the possibility: ‘evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April‘.

On the value of the evidence

As usual and for good reason, the reports by the Technical Secretariat remain careful in their conclusions. Determination of reponsibility for the violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and other legal instruments banning chemical warfare is pre-eminently a political judgement. As noted earlier, the Executive Council will consider these findings (as well as those in the other two reports) on 23 November, after which they will be transferred to the UN Security Council. They will also inform the Joint Investigative Mission established by the UNSC in August, whose principal task it is to determine responsibility for chemical warfare in the Syrian civil war.

Meanwhile, the investigators assess their findings concerning the delivery system as follows:

The description of the alleged chemical weapon and its deployment derives from several inputs, as previously described. The features of the improvised chemical bomb are consistent with its being designed for deployment from a height. As most incidents happened during darkness, it is not surprising that no interviewees claimed to have seen the means of deployment. The deformation of the remnants is consistent with mechanical impact and explosive rupture, rather than explosion causing deflagration. Witnesses also reported a lesser explosive sound than for other more conventional types of bombs. Moreover, casualties’ signs and symptoms do not include physical injuries that would be expected from the deployment of an explosive device. The craters which have been claimed to have been caused by the device are also consistent with its being dropped from a height with lesser explosive power. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the devices were not designed to cause mechanical injury through explosive force but rather to rupture and release their contents.

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Innocence Slaughtered – Forthcoming book

The introduction of chemical warfare to the battlefield on 22 April 1915 changed the face of total warfare. Not only did it bring science to combat, it was both the product of societal transformation and a shaper of the 20th century societies.

This collaborative work investigates the unfolding catastrophe that the unleashing of chlorine against the Allied positions meant for individual soldiers and civilians. It describes the hesitation on the German side about the effectiveness, and hence impact on combat operations of the weapon whilst reflecting on the lack of Allied response to the many intelligence pointers that something significant was afoot.

Innocence Slaughtered cover

It goes on to describe the massive transformation that societies were undergoing as a consequence of industrialisation, science and technology, and the impact these trends were to have on the emergence of what we know today as ‘total war’. Chemical warfare pitted the brightest minds from the various belligerents against each other and in some ways this competition revealed early thinking about intellectual superiority that was to define the decades after the Armistice. The ability to survive in a chemically contaminated environment was proof of a higher level of achievement. In simple terms, chemical defence equalled survival of the fittest.

  • Edited by Dr Jean Pascal Zanders
  • Introduction by Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)
  • To be published in December 2015

Table of Contents

  • Ahmet Üzümcü (Director-General Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons): Preface
  • Jean Pascal Zanders: Introduction
  • Jean Pascal Zanders: The Road to The Hague
  • Olivier Lepick: Towards total war: Langemarck, 22 April 1915
  • Luc Vandeweyer: The Belgian Army and the gas attack on 22 April 1915
  • Dominiek Dendooven: 22 April 1915 – Eyewitness accounts of the first gas attack
  • Julian Putkowski: Toxic Shock: The British Army’s reaction to German poison gas during the Second Battle of Ypres
  • David Omissi: The Indian Army at the Second Battle of Ypres
  • Bert Heyvaert: Phosgene in the Ypres Salient: 19 December 1915
  • Gerard Oram: A War on Terror: Gas, British morale, and reporting the war in Wales
  • Wolfgang Wietzker: Gas Warfare in 1915 and the German press
  • Peter van den Dungen: Civil Resistance to chemical warfare in the 1st World War
  • Leo van Bergen and Maartje Abbenhuis: Man-monkey, monkey-man: Neutrality and the discussions about the ‘inhumanity’ of poison gas in the Netherlands and International Committee of the Red Cross
  • Jean Pascal Zanders: The road to Geneva

Publisher’s information


Chemical weapons in the Middle East remain sensitive

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 4 December I addressed a workshop on Nuclear Safety, Security and WMD Non-proliferation. The event was organised by Atomic Reporters and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), together with the Stanley Foundation and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). The target audience consisted of more than 20 journalists from or working in the Middle East.

My presentation ‘Responding to chemical weapon use in Syria’ addressed the allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria since early 2013 and the international CW disarmament operation over the past 15 months.

The audience’s reactions at times illustrated how sensitive the question of CW remains in the Middle East. When people are forced outside their comfort zone offered by established reference frameworks, regional security discussions quickly become tense. If ever serious progress is to be made on the idea of a zone free of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East, preparing a common reference framework for the participants in the debates—particularly civil society constituencies who must prepare the ground to make proposed solutions politically and socially acceptable—will be an unescapable task.

Lale Kemal, a Turkish journalist, captured the exchanges very well in a piece for the Daily Zaman on 8 December. If she leaves you with the impression that the discussions were not just intense, but also most stimulating, then I can confirm they were.

Middle East’s ‘unique’ status on chemical weapons

A colleague from a Middle Eastern country reacted sharply when a speaker in a recent workshop in Vienna used the term “Muslims” in some of his references to the countries in the region during his presentation on the issue of chemical weapons. The colleague urged him to use the names of the countries instead of generalizing them with their affiliation to Islam. The topic of chemical weapons is a sensitive one. Jean Pascal Zanders, director of The Trench — a website specializing in reporting on chemical weapons — told the workshop audience in Vienna that with the exception of the First Indochina War, all cases of major chemical warfare after World War II have taken place in the Middle East.

Yet this journalist’s reaction to the speaker in his usage of the term “Muslims” does not change the reality that — in the words of Mehmet Dönmez, head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate — around 900 Muslims per day are killed by fellow Muslims around the world, including in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the topic of the workshop for journalists from the Middle East, held in Vienna between Dec. 3-5, was on nuclear safety, security and WMD non-proliferation. WMD is short for “weapons of mass destruction,” which are chemical, biological and nuclear weapons — the deadliest weapons that have so far been developed by humankind.

The workshop was sponsored by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with nongovernmental organizations the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), the US-based Stanley Foundation and Vienna-based Atomic Reporters. The event was hosted by the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP). It was a follow-up to the first workshop, which was held in I.stanbul in June of this year in cooperation with I.stanbul’s Okan University.

Going back to the topic of chemical weapons in the Middle East, Zanders from The Trench cited the known incidents of the usage of chemical weapons in the region, including Egypt during its war with Yemen in the 1950s and Iraq against Iran in 1984 during the long-lasting war between the two countries in the 1980s, as well as Iraq’s use of mustard gas against its own Kurds. Syria lately staged a sarin gas attack against its own citizens in Ghouta, near Damascus. Syria’s chemical weapons were destroyed under a deal it struck with some world powers, yet it is unclear whether the country is still hiding some of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Meanwhile, Israel is the only country in the Middle East widely known to possess nuclear weapons, even if it neither denies nor confirms their existence. Iran is accused by the international community of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of developing nuclear energy power plants.

Dr. Chen Kane from the CNS strengthened Zanders’ assertion, saying during the workshop that, concerning cases of the usage of chemical weapons as well as their possession, the region is unique. According to her, in the Middle East, all three categories of weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological and nuclear — have been pursued by different states and chemical weapons have even been used in the region on several occasions. She mentioned fundamental ongoing territorial, religious, ethnic and other disputes that underline that the reality of WMDs and that the acquisition of WMDs in the region is interrelated and politically and security-motivated. Out of the seven violations of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Dr. Chen said five are from the Middle East — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt. This situation illustrates the risk associated with nuclear programs in unstable countries and war zones. It is unclear if any Middle Eastern country possesses biological weapons. The unstable nature of the Middle East also carries the risk of terrorist groups obtaining WMDs.

In February 2015, the Ja?far al-Tayya-r brigade and the al-Nusra Front gained control of the al-Kibar site (also called Dair Aizour) in Syria, where a nuclear reactor believed to have been under construction was destroyed by Israel during an air raid in 2007. According to Zanders, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — a terrorist group against which US-led Western and Arab coalition forces are currently carrying out an air campaign in both Iraq and Syria — has not obtained WMDs.

Turkey, a NATO member and a neighbor to the Middle East, came under criticism a long time ago for using white phosphorus — a kind of a chemical weapon — against militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, Zanders stated that such allegations from the PKK have never been confirmed by international organizations addressing WMDs.

The absence of a security framework or organization in the Middle East — where there is no regional conventional arms control culture — to mitigate the danger of WMDs poses a great threat to the region in particular and the world in general.


Üzümcü: “After Syria I do not see any country able to use chemical weapons anymore”

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

The last day of October, a sunny Friday in The Hague, I met with Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü to reflect on the previous year and a half, during which the civil war in Syria suddenly thrust the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into the spotlight.

In March 2013 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested technical assistance from the OPCW to investigate alleged chemical weapon (CW) use in the war-torn country. Six months later, after a serious incident in which sarin nerve agent killed and poisoned many hundreds of people in the Ghouta district of Damascus, Syria unexpectedly joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. And so began an urgent and perilous disarmament project. The announcement that the OPCW was to receive the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize just knocked international expectations from the organisation several notches higher.

The Syrian disarmament project has had a clear impact on the OPCW. Not just on its daily operations during the past 18 months, but it will also affect its future. However, the key question is whether the OPCW’s success in trying circumstances can inspire the international community to revive disarmament as a security tool.

Syria’s CW precursors have been evacuated and are almost all destroyed. Destruction of former CW production facilities has now begun. What were you thinking last year when you accepted the tight deadlines in the US–Russian Geneva Framework Agreement?

The Framework Agreement reached in Geneva on 14 September of last year was a significant achievement. The Russians and Americans wrapped up their negotiations in four days, which surprised us as much as the whole international community. We knew that the OPCW could be called on to address the chemical part of the Syrian conflict. In which form and under which conditions, we did not know then. Even so we were prepared to get involved and if necessary, to take the lead, all the while knowing such a project would be very challenging.

We first saw this document on 14 September. On 27 September, the Executive Council decided on OPCW involvement and a few hours later the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) endorsed that decision. Between both dates, we had 13 days to prepare our team for deployment to Damascus, work out the modalities, and so on. Having said that, I should add that the Technical Secretariat had been preparing itself for several contingencies. They included possible investigation of alleged CW use. We were thus ready when in March 2013 the UN Secretary-General called upon our expertise. In September, we had a team of 60 volunteer inspectors ready to go to Syria. They had trained to carry out different tasks.

Still, I was following the Geneva talks from Beijing. The negotiators raised questions whether we would be ready to do this or that. Our responses were all positive. We looked at our gaps. We identified a few areas where we would need some additional support, so we decided to rehire some of our former experts and hire some external experts. Important to us was to act swiftly and diligently. We also had to demonstrate to the international community that after 16 years the OPCW had the necessary capacity and expertise. I think we succeeded.

As I said, on Friday, 27 September, the decision was taken here. The same day the UNSC endorsed it in a resolution. On Monday, our inspectors were on their way. On Tuesday, they arrived in Damascus. The UN clearly had some difficulties to match this pace. The UN mechanism is huge compared to ours. So I called Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday, the day before the UNSC decision. I told him that we were ready to deploy and asked him for logistical and security support, which we received. Despite the magnitude of the challenge and the security situation in Syria, I think the Technical Secretariat was fully prepared to lead. When I say ‘lead’, I of course refer to the technical part of the operation. We relied on the UN for logistical support and security.

The other obvious challenge was the financial dimension. In that respect, having seen the support from the whole international community for this Russian–US initiative, I actually did not have any concerns. It was proven later on that we would have the necessary funds in both the UN and the OPCW Trust Funds. Financial aspects would not be problematic and they never were.

A year ago, I should say, we were both mentally and physically prepared to go to Syria. I personally was involved in setting up a task force, which I chaired every morning on the 7th floor of the OPCW headquarters. This also gave me the opportunity to know better some of our staff members. They were really capable and pleased to be able to help coordinate such a major operational mission.

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Chlorine: A weapon of last resort for ISIL?

Over the past few weeks several press reports have suggested that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have resorted to chlorine use in attacks in Iraq and Syria.

The grouping is no stranger to chlorine. In some earlier incarnation it was known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later it rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq when it explicitly began trying to control territory. Harsh imposition of its strict interpretation of Sharia law and extreme violence towards anybody refusing total subjugation to its rule soon had Sunni tribal leaders uniting in resistance early in 2007. They also began cooperation with forces of the US-led coalition occupying Iraq since 2003 and the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. AQI started mounting large-scale operations involving several hundreds of fighters to capture local seats of power. During the first half of 2007 suicide attacks with lorries rigged with a large quantity of explosives evolved from isolated incidents to terrorise and destabilise societies to a tool integrated in assaults against government centres and fortified positions. After an isolated attempt in October 2006, AQI launched almost 20 chlorine attacks in the first half of 2007.

This posting is a first effort to understand the dynamic behind ISIL resorting to chlorine and perhaps some other toxic chemical substances in military operations in Iraq and Syria. If current chlorine attacks can be confirmed, then some interesting parallels with the brief episode in Iraq may be discerned (but the hypotheses do require further study to be confirmed):

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Until silence

Children and babies—whether born or unborn—suffer immensely in any armed conflict. Mental trauma from witnessing human wasting, which no person should really be exposed to anymore. Physical injuries that scar the young ones for the rest of their lives, even if a sense of normalcy could ever be recaptured. And death, often considered the worst possible outcome, but nonetheless a fortuitous escape from a lifelong suffering inflicted by a senseless war ripping apart the early stages of their far too many young lives. For the survivors—bereft parents and mothers of the stillborn one—deep-reaching psychological wounds far beyond consolation.

Until the silence says goodbye

Addressing her companion after a mutual acquaintance, a British naval officer who had served in World War 1, suddenly passed away in 1923, Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth, Chapter XXII, 4) wrote:

I don’t think victory over death is anything so superficial as a person fulfilling their normal span of life. It can be twofold; a victory over death by the man who faces it for himself without fear, and the victory by those who, loving him, know that death is but a little thing compared with the fact that he lived and was the kind of person he was … That’s why those war victories with which I was especially associated are still incomplete. That the people faced their own deaths without fear I have no doubt. It is through me that the victory is incomplete, because I cannot always quite feel that their deaths matter less to me than the fact that they lived, nor reconcile their departure, with all their aspirations unfulfilled, with my own scheme of life.

Having lost her fiancé, two brothers and a close friend in the Great war, she was still struggling make sense of death, despite a self-induced mental numbness to cope in a post-war British society that had no time or space to embrace its many scarred veterans with the human carnage she saw firsthand as a voluntary nurse.

No pantomime of time to heal…

For the unborn child or infant physically or psychologically mauled by detonating bombs or shells, there is no victory for having lived that parents could savour. Chemical weapons add to that despair: a person living under their threat has no sense of being able to escape them. There is simply no place to run (to paraphrase Tim Cook’s magnificent book on Canadian soldiers’ adaptation to survive under a perpetual gas blanket during World War 1).

Hurt and fear are overwhelming emotions. Children and gas, when combined, allow for easy, but powerful manipulation of public opinion beyond the battlefield, often for purposes that have little bearing on relieving the plight of those actually facing the threats. Add a couple of graphic pictures; throw in one or two names to make the suffering tangible and direct public emotions to these few foci in order to momentarily blur out the 150,000 fatalities and millions of other casualties shared by all sides in the Syrian civil war. Can a policy maker or shaper fail to respond to such concentrated emotion? This is why I reacted strongly to the unsubstantiated claims that sarin exposure was causing the deformed babies in ‘Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?

Today, a week or so after The Telegraph (London) and The Daily Star (Beirut) ran their respective ‘scoops’, no additional claims, no new names of children from the Ghouta area, have surfaced. A few media outlets reported on the original stories, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody seems to have delved further into the matter. Claims of sarin’s mutagenic properties appear to have vanished into thin air.

Survive to die alive

In contrast, other factors that may explain the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies have come to the fore: prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, unsanitary conditions (at home, in shelters or in hospitals), etc.

Last December, many months before the sarin claims, a trained paediatrician with 20 years experience working Médecins sans frontières attributed the malformations in Syrian infants she was treating to possible deprivation of folic acids. No or insufficient intake during especially the first four weeks of a pregnancy profoundly compromises the neurulation process, which in turn leads to severe congenital deformity.

If this doctor’s surmise is correct, then the rising incidence of stillborn or malformed babies testifies to the dreadful state of Syria’s health system more than anything else.

She also described the wrenching plight of two pregnant women caught up in aerial bombing on their way to the market one sunny day. One lost her baby in her struggle to survive …

No hint of sarin or chemical warfare in her accounts.

There is simply no need to add gas to feel the pain of Syrian mothers …

 

[Cross-posted from The Trench]


Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?

August, 100 years ago: the Hun from the east invaded little, neutral Belgium. In the opening weeks of the campaign the Hun was not a good boy. He willfully executed civilians, raped women, destroyed historical monuments and burned down university libraries—all war crimes that have been extensively documented. The worst barbarian acts, however, he committed against babies. He cut off their hands, so that the grownup man could never take up arms against the Hunnic master. Worse, he tossed them in the air and caught them on his bayonet. Alas, each investigated claim proved to be a myth. Meanwhile, many a Brit had enlisted to revenge the ‘Rape of Belgium’.

Similar stories appealing to public emotion circulated before the outbreak of World War I. And they have been fabricated since. Remember the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and Nayirah’s testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus? Nayirah, then 15 years old, told of Iraqi soldiers seizing incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals and leaving the babies to die on cold floors. Nayirah turned out to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, and the accusations were reportedly coached by a US-based PR company contracted by the Kuwaiti government. However, the tale received a huge credibility boost from  Amnesty International. The human rights watchdog claimed in a December 1991 report that its investigation team talked with several doctors and nurses who ‘gave details of the deaths of 300 babies removed from incubators in hospitals by Iraqi troops and left to die on cold floors’ (Douglas Walton, 1995, p. 772). (Amnesty international eventually retracted its report, unlike Human Rights Watch today, which released a dubious report on the Ghouta attacks and—in a modern version of the Vietnam-era ‘destroy the town to save it’—seized on the chemical weapon allegations to call for military strikes against Syria.)

Which brings us to current press reports of genetically malformed babies as a consequence of chemical warfare in Syria.

Deformed babies after the Ghouta attack

A few days ago, The Telegraph (London) and the Daily Star (Beirut) published testimonies and pictures of children born with genetic defects from the Ghouta district near Damascus. Other babies were reported to have been stillborn. Parents and attending physicians attributed the occurrences to the chemical attacks there last August. The UN investigative team confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in those attacks.

Many toxic chemicals are known mutagens. Some directly damage the DNA, resulting in replication errors. Some interfere with the replication process itself, and yet other ones can create mutagenic metabolites. Certain cancers may result from genotoxic properties of chemicals. As a matter of history, research into the physiological consequences of exposure to mustard agents after World War I and during World War II contributed to the development of chemotherapy against cancer. Chronic exposure to such genotoxicants may also lead to transgenerational genetic effects. Images of mutant fish and amphibians living in polluted water reservoirs come to mind. The severely malformed infants of Vietnamese parents and US veterans who were exposed to large doses of Agent Orange sprayed to defoliate forests during the Indochina war remain living proof of the transgenerational mutagenic and teratogenic consequences of certain chemical warfare agents. Research into the long-term health implications of the chemical bombing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 has revealed similar transgenerational effects of mustard agent.

The main problem with the current claims of genetically malformed babies in the Ghouta area is that no indicators are available to conclude that the nerve agent sarin provokes cancer or leads to genetic defects.

Long-term research into the effects of sarin

As a consequence of the prevalence of illnesses related to the 1990–91 Gulf War among US military personnel, the United States conducted extensive investigations into the consequences of exposure to nerve agents. One report, published in 1996, failed to link the neurotoxicants to cancers or mutations (GB is the US military code for sarin):

Carcinogenicity, Mutagenicity, Teratogenicity
Organophosphates are not recognized as being carcinogens. No evidence was found to suggest that GB has carcinogenic potential. In a follow-up study of approximately 995 U.S. Army volunteers who participated in anticholinesterase experiments at the U.S. Army laboratories, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Edgewood, Maryland during 1955-1975, no consistent pattern of increased risk of cancer was found (NRC, 1985). The study was of relatively low statistical power, and was only able to identify large differences. The investigators concluded that, based on these findings, and the 10 lifetime studies of carcinogenicity of organophosphates sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, that anticholinesterase compounds did not induce malignancies among the Edgewood subjects.

Goldman, Klein, Kawakami and Rosenblatt (1987) concluded that GB is not mutagenic based on both in vivo and in vitro evaluations. Negative results were found in the Ames Salmonella bacterial gene mutation assay using 5 different strains exposed to a range of concentration of GB. Mouse lymphoma cell tests, Chinese hamster ovary cell tests, including sister chromatid exchange assays, and rat hepatocyte assays (for unscheduled DNA synthesis and damage) were all negative for mutagenic activity.

No evidence of teratogenicity of GB was found. Organophosphates are generally not considered to have significant reproductive effects; no studies to directly evaluate this characteristic in GB were found. In their study of the toxicity of chronic exposure of dogs to GB, Jacobsen, Christensen, DeArmon, and Oberst (1959) had the male animals bred after 25 weeks of daily moderate doses of GB; the offspring were normal.

In their one year, low-dose GB inhalation exposure study of a variety of animals, Weimer et al (1979) found no abnormalities in reproduction and fertility, fetal toxicity, or teratogenesis in Sprague-Dawley/Wistar rats. Testicular atrophy was noted in the Fischer rat, but the authors speculated other causes, since later experiments (using a different route of exposure) did not replicate the finding. In their report, the authors also cite work conducted by J. R. Denk (EB-TR-74087 Effects of GB on Mammalian Germ Cells and Reproductive Performance, February 1975) which came to the same negative conclusions.

Similarly, an Emergency Response Card, last reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control on 12 May 2011, notes:

EFFECTS OF CHRONIC OR REPEATED EXPOSURE: Limited data are available on chronic or repeated exposure to sarin. The available data however, suggest that sarin is not a human carcinogen, reproductive toxin, or developmental toxin. Limited data suggest that chronic or repeated exposure to sarin may result in a delayed postural sway and/or impaired psychomotor performance (neuropathy).

 Attribution to chlorine and mustard agent exposure

The Daily Star also offered a bizarre linkage with chlorine, the agent of recent chemical warfare allegations in Syria:

While stressing that he was not a doctor, chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon pointed to similar birth defects witnessed after the 1988 Halabja massacre, when the Iraqi government launched a chemical attack against the local Kurdish population.

De Bretton-Gordon, CEO of SecureBio, a UK-based Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear consultancy firm and former commander of the British military’s CBRN forces, said of the images of Joud: ‘Yes I think there is something in this and we saw similar from Halabja victims. I’m obviously not a doctor but chemical weapons, including chlorine, are known to be carcinogenic and mutanogenic.” (Sic)

The Center for Disease Control, the U.S. national public health institute, states that in the use of organophosphates such as sarin, ‘the possibility that birth defects could occur has neither been confirmed nor ruled out.’ Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.

The Health Protection Agency (today Public Health England) published a toxicological overview of chlorine (2007) and excluded any of the above cited consequences from exposure:

Genotoxicity

No data are available on the mutagenicity of chlorine gas per se, although the mutagenicity of solutions of chlorine in water (hypochlorite and its salts) has been investigated. Sodium hypochlorite has been shown to have some mutagenic activity in vitro (both bacterial and mammalian cells) that may be due to the generation of reactive oxygen species. However, there is no evidence for activity in vivo. Negative results were obtained in bone marrow assays for clastogenicity (chromosome aberrations and micronuclei) in mice. The negative results reported in the carcinogenicity bioassays also support the view that hypochlorite does not have any significant mutagenic potential in vivo.

Carcinogenicity

Negative results were obtained when chlorine (dissolved in drinking water) was investigated in a National Toxicology Program (NTP) carcinogenicity bioassay in rats and mice; concentrations of up to 275 ppm chlorine were used. Previously, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had evaluated the carcinogenicity of hypochlorite salts and concluded that there was no data available from human studies and that the data from experimental studies in animals was inadequate. Therefore, hypochlorite salts were assigned to Group 3, i.e., compounds that are not classifiable as to their carcinogenicity in humans.

Reproductive and developmental toxicity

In general, animal studies have demonstrated no reproductive or teratogenic effects of chlorine. The effects of water chlorinated to a level of 150 mg L -1 were investigated in rats over 7 generations. No effects were observed on fertility, growth or survival.

Whether the interviewed expert actually expressed the words as recorded in the Daily Star is uncertain. The last sentence in the newspaper quote may indicate a mixup on the part of the journalist: ‘Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.’ Chlorine, of course, is a choking agent, not a vesicant such as mustard gas.

As noted above, Saddam Hussein’s forces did employ mustard agent against Halabja and exposure to the agent can have genetic consequences for the survivors. However, nobody has ever alleged mustard gas use with respect to the chemical weapon attacks against Ghouta (or for that matter during the Syrian civil war). Therefore, speculating on the consequences of an agent not at issue is entirely irrelevant.

Spurious argumentation

Substantiation of the claims rests on impressions and convictions of the affected families and some doctors working in the field making straightforward linkages between an observed phenomenon and the appearance of supposed consequences a while later. The articles offer no independently verified facts on the previous incidence of malformed children in the affected area or within the families.

The mothers in question are all reported to have been pregnant at the time of the gas attacks against Ghouta. Certain chemicals are known to affect the development of the foetus, the consumption of alcohol and smoking during pregnancy being prime examples. Sarin, however, does not appear to have such an impact, although, of course, one cannot exclude that the ways in which the body responds to the poisoning and the administered antidotes may impact on foetal growth.

Instead of exploring the deeper connections between cause and effect, The Telegraph chose to refer to the testimony by Dr Christine Gosden before the US Congress (which actually took place on 22 April 1998). She described how the inhabitants of Halabja were exposed to a cocktail of chemicals. With regard to the impact of mustard gas, she noted:

Long term effects. The most serious of the long term effects arise because mustard gas is carcinogenic and mutagenic. In the respiratory system there are increased risks of chronic lung disease, asthma, bronchitis. Permanent impairment of vision may occur and eye damage may be severe, leading to blindness. Skin lesions and burns may be severe with persistent changes and hypersensitivity to mechanical injury. Carcinogenic and mutagenic effects can result in cancers, congenital malformations and infertility. Long term effects (mutagenesis, carcinogenesis, eye, skin, lung, fertility, etc.) are dose and route dependent.

She does not claim similar consequences from exposure to nerve agents. Most importantly, the remainder of her testimony details the various short- and long-term symptoms observed in the victims over a 10-year period, but does not attribute any one of them to a specific warfare agent. In other words, invoking Gosden’s report as evidence in support of the claims regarding the consequences of the Ghouta attack is misleading, more so as the only agent that might strongly suggest carcinogenic or mutagenic consequences was not used in Syria.

The Telegraph article (unwittingly?) offers a very good alternative explanation for the genetic malformations (emphasis added):

‘We are receiving pregnant women in Arsal from many areas such as Qusair, Homs, Kalamoon, and [outer] Damascus, they come across the border for giving birth but in some cases the result is tragedy.’

‘We are receiving around 100 births a month in Arsal, about 12 per cent in the average out of them are stillborn,’ [Dr Kasem al-Zein] said. ‘The problems for newborn children are mostly occurring in women who were exposed to the chemical weapons, but also we have noticed that all women who lived in areas exposed to shelling by barrels and missiles are suffering fetal diseases.’

Arsal lies to the northeast of Baalbek in Lebanon. Since the reported cases attributed to chemical attacks are all from the last week or two, it is very difficult to determine how large a part of the monthly average they (can) represent. In contrast, the numbers do hint at possible roles of prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, and so on, in the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies.

Déjà vu

The story leaves a distinct impression of having seen it all before. The Telegraph came up with a defector, General Zaher al-Sakat, who had replaced sarin with Eau de Javel, a story that did not get much traction. Last month, it offered proof of chlorine use, which it claimed to be on a par with the methodologies applied by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And interestingly enough, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote on 6 September 2002, ‘the first mention of babies being removed from incubators appeared in the Sept. 5 [1991] edition of the London Daily Telegraph’. That was on the eve of the decision to authorise military force to eject Iraq from Kuwait.

Seeking out plausible alternative explanations for observed phenomena and then eliminating them systematically goes a long way to establishing the credibility of an allegation. Are the current claims of mutagenic consequences of the chemical strikes in Ghouta part of a concerted ploy to again build a humanitarian case for Western military intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? If so, it smacks of bayoneted Belgian babies all over again.

[Cross-posted from The Trench]