Chemical Warfare Examined At Helsinki University
If Professor Marjatta Rautio had to chose between mustard gas and nerve gas, she would choose nerve gas. “You die quickly. Mustard gas gives you blisters that take at least a year to heal.”
Rautio heads up VERIFIN, the research center for chemical weapons located on the Kumpula campus of the University of Helsinki. Not very well known in Finland, even among students of the natural sciences, VERIFIN is better known outside of Finland.
VERIFIN stands for the Finnish Institute for Verification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. An international agreement to ban the production, stockpiling and selling of chemical weapons went into effect in 1997. A laboratory network to monitor the use of chemical weapons was initiated by Finland much earlier and the VERIFIN lab, founded in 1973, is the best in the world. In Isreal VERIFIN publications are known as “Blue Bibles”.
Several harmful gases are used for other purposes today and tracing their legitimate use is difficult. Mustard gas is used in ballpoint pens and other chemical poisons are used in cancer treatments, for example. When the staff of twenty chemists at VERIFIN receive samples or dirt, paint or bullets, they don’t know whether they are real samples or tests.
“Our priority has been to develop our research methods. Whenever we find matter that we don’t recognize, it is collected and included in our information banks”, Rautio explains.
Essi Pölhö studies chemistry and works at VERIFIN. She wrote her Master’s thesis on twenty different kinds of nerve gas, testing on a special combination “gas chromatograph and infra-red spectroscope”.”The gas can be separated into drops in the research process in order to identify the components,” she explains.
Chemical weapons are called the poor man’s atom bomb. They are relatively cheap to produce and cause vast amounts of damage. “The most volatile area is the Near East. Because Israel is nuclear, all of its surrounding countries feel they have to defend themselves,” says Raunio.
In 1998, Saddam Hussein killed and maimed about 10 000 Kurds in the village of Halabja. “Halabja now has severe environmental problems and several diseases,” says Raunio, who has visited the site.
In 1998 Iraq threw all of its international weapons inspectors out of the country and most believe that they are rebuilding their chemical weapon factories as quickly as they can. In Bosnia, the Serbs are accused of using the BZ chemical. “The victims of BZ are reduced to a child-like stupor with no motor skills. BZ doesn’t kill, it just stops people from fighting.” Serbia has been known to have a chemical warfare agenda and did not sign the international ban.
by Pamela Kaskinen