British scientists have found forensic evidence that a chemical weapon that was reported on March 19 was used in Syria. It is claimed that a soil sample had been smuggled out of Syria to the United Kingdom for testing, and was tested at the British Ministry of Defence chemical and biological research establishment at Porton Down. The soil sample result for chemical weapons proved positive. The chemical used at Khan al-Assel was not a riot control agent, but British scientists are not certain if the sample was the chemical agent Sarin, which is a nerve agent that can be used in a persistent or non-persistent form. British scientists could not prove who had used the chemical agent, the al-Assad government or the rebels.
Syria is known to produce four types of chemical agents:
Sarin Nerve Agent Lethal Agent Persistent or non-persistent
Tabun or GA Nerve Agent Lethal Agent Persistent or non-persistent
VX or IUPAC Nerve Agent Lethal Agent Persistent or non-persistent
Mustard Gas Classified as non-lethal, Persistent or non-persistent
A chemical agent in a persistent form is a sticky liquid that remains attached to exposed skin or a surface. If it touches exposed areas of skin, is breathed in, or enters through the eyes, it will kill the victim within minutes unless the person wears a protective suit, gloves, boots and a respirator with the correct type of filter. This type of agent is used mostly to deny areas to an enemy until a decontamination team arrives to cleanse the area, allowing troops to move into the area. The duration time and the persistence of the agent depends on its concentration and the local weather conditions of the area in which it is used. There will also be a “down-wind hazard” to any chemical agent used; anyone who is not wearing a special respirator would breathe in the agent and could die quickly. A non-persistent agent’s possible use is as a precursor to an attack, where the agent would dissipate quickly, allowing follow-up troops to advance quickly.
Mustard gas is classified as a non-lethal agent, but is in fact a lethal agent. If skin or an airway into the body is not protected, the agent causes large blisters on an affected area, which if scratched, spreads the infection. If an airway is not protected, then the agent enters the airway and causes large blisters, which can close the airway and suffocate the victim.
Paul Ashley is the Senior Counter-Terrorist Analyst at 361 Security