Madison County

Chemical toxins stored in Madison County are same type used in Syria

The types of chemical weapons stored and scheduled for destruction in Madison County are suspected of being used against people in Syria and to kill the half-brother of North Korea’s leader.

“It’s very disappointing that these kinds of occurrences continue,” said Craig Williams, the Berea man who has spent decades working to see that chemical weapons stored at Blue Grass Army Depot are safely destroyed.

Autopsies of victims from this week’s assault in Syria show they were subjected to chemical weapons, possibly the nerve agent sarin. Videos depicting Syrian civilians in respiratory distress are consistent with sarin gas exposure.

“It was a slow and brutal death for so many,” President Donald Trump said Thursday night after ordering the military strike against the Syrian airfield from which the chemical attack was launched.

Meanwhile, the nerve agent called VX is believed to have been used to kill the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in February. A fraction of a drop of VX absorbed through the skin is enough to “fatally disrupt the nervous system,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sarin, VX and the blister agent known as mustard, another chemical weapon known to have been in the Syrian stockpile, are the same internationally banned toxins present in rockets and projectiles at the army depot. (As the name suggests, blister agents cause large and often life-threatening skin blisters that resemble severe burns.)

Coincidentally, the executive committee of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of that group, were in Richmond Tuesday when news broke about the Syrian attack. They were there for a tour of the plant where the Madison County weapons will be destroyed.

“Needless to say, they were very disappointed that it (the Syrian attack) had occurred,” Williams said. He is director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation’s Chemical Weapons Working Group, which monitors the effort to destroy those weapons, and has represented Kentucky in OPCW meetings at The Hague, Netherlands.

OPCW oversees the global effort to permanently eliminate chemical weapons. The organization has gone into Syria numerous times to interview witnesses, obtain samples and establish the facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals. Its work confirmed that Syria has used chemical weapons in the past, and it is gathering information about the latest attack.

In 2014, a joint OPCW-United Nations mission oversaw the dismantling of some of Syria’s chemical weapons, which included transporting the most toxic weapons onto a specially outfitted U.S. ship for destruction in international waters.

The latest alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government “was an affront to all of those efforts,” Williams said. “Either they hid some and didn’t declare them or they made more.”

As a signatory to an international treaty, the United States has destroyed most of its original chemical weapons stockpile. Trump alluded to that Thursday when he said it is in the country’s national security interest “to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

Syria and North Korea are among a handful of nations that have not signed the international treaty banning chemical weapons.

Destruction of the chemical weapons in Kentucky is supposed to begin in 2020 after testing has completed at a pilot plant between Richmond and Berea. If all goes well and there are no delays, it will take until 2023 to destroy all the weapons.

The Army plans to heat the VX and sarin in chemical reactors to destroy them. The resulting byproduct will contain no detectable toxins. In a separate process and building, the mustard projectiles at Blue Grass will be destroyed in a steel chamber that will electronically heat them until they explode.

The Madison County weapons will be the last of nine U.S. stockpiles to be eliminated. Destruction of another stockpile in Pueblo, Colo., began last year and is forecast to be finished in 2020.

At Blue Grass, the weapons are stored in the Chemical Limited Area, a 250-acre site of the 15,000-acre depot. Fences surrounding the area are topped with coiled razor wire, and signs warn intruders that “Use of Deadly Force is Authorized.”

The weapons are cradled in wooden pallets and stacked like bottles of wine in more than 40 dirt-covered concrete bunkers or “igloos.”

Sarin and VX are called “nerve agents” because they break down an enzyme that allows nerves to talk to each other, so victims become overstimulated. Difficulty in breathing, nausea, vomiting, convulsions and respiratory failure can result.

Sarin can be inhaled as a gas or absorbed through the skin. In high doses, sarin suffocates its victims by paralyzing the muscles around their lungs.

VX is even more potent. A cocktail of drugs can act as an antidote, but VX acts so quickly that victims “would have to be injected with antidote almost immediately to have a chance of survival,” the Council on Foreign Relations says.

Malaysian police said VX was used to kill Kim Jong Nam when he was attacked in February at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. North Korea is suspected of being behind the attack of Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.

Experts believe the two women arrested in connection with the attack used a “binary concoction” in which they smeared two non-fatal elements of VX that mixed to create a lethal dose on the victim’s face.

The VX suspected in that attack “could not have been pure VX,” Williams said. “I think it was two precursors. The one gal sprayed something in his face and the next gal with a glove on added something to his face. That mixture is what killed him, but it took him 15 minutes to die. VX doesn’t take 15 minutes to die. So it was a combination of VX precursors.”

VX was never used by the American military in combat. But its lethal potential was demonstrated in 1968 when an aerial spraying test of VX at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah went awry, killing thousands of grazing sheep.