World War I left us with many developments and many more shadows. Blood banks, stainless steel even zips were all invented to solve the many problems faced during the conflict. The other side of the coin brought machine guns, tanks and chemical weapons. New and terrifying methods for killing en masse. Yes, there are examples of chemical warfare dating back before World War I. Poisoned arrows, bellows of arsenic fumes and burning Sulphur and bitumen to suffocate Roman soldiers barricaded in tunnels. However, World War I is when chemical weapons really took off and nations across the globe entered a race to develop, produce and weaponise the most deadly compounds possible. Since then more than 700,000 tonnes of chemical weapons have been produced, including the horrific nerve agent VX.
What is it?
VX, short for venomous agent X, is a chemical compound capable of killing a person just by touching their skin. As humans seem intent on becoming the masters of our own demise it probably won’t surprise you that VX is not found in nature. It’s entirely manmade. It belongs to a group of synthesized chemical compounds known as nerve agents. Yes, there’s a whole group of them. Why stop at one when we could create more than 10 nightmarish ways to kill thousands of people.
The majority of nerve agents are organophosphates, mixtures of phosphorus, carbon and other elements. Unfortunately, as they’re such simple compounds, they’re easy to make and can be manufactured in fairly ordinary factories. The only known uses for them are as insecticides, if weak enough, or nerve agents if potent enough.
The nerve agent VX is an oily, amber coloured liquid. It’s odourless and tasteless making it difficult for victims to detect until the symptoms begin.
How does it Kill You?
If you’ve seen the 1996 film, The Rock, you might imagine VX to be a bright green liquid that immediately aerosolizes, causing the skin to bubble and blister before the victim’s face melts off. The reality is very different but equally brutal. After exposure, symptoms will appear within hours but large doses can start to work within seconds, just like the film.
Victims may first feel as if they’ve a severe cold or flu. They’ll develop a headache, cough, runny nose, and watery eyes. As their condition worsens they might suffer vomiting, diarrhoea, sweating, drooling, confusion, chest tightness, abnormal heart rate, high or low blood pressure and constricted pupils. Finally, they’ll begin convulsing and experience paralysis, leading to respiratory failure. The final cause of death is asphyxiation as the lungs are paralysed.
VX does this by preventing the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE) working properly. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter, responsible for transmitting nerve impulses across synapses. It causes muscles to contract. AChE is the enzyme that breaks it down and lets the muscle relax. When VX stops the AChE working, the synapses become flooded with Acetylcholine and the muscles never get the signal to relax. Imagine every muscle contracting all over your body at once. You’d jerk, twitch and convulse. But, more fatally, your ribcage would expand, filling your lungs. As they’d never receive the signal to relax you’d die of suffocation due to being unable to breathe out.
You can be exposed to VX through the skin, eye contact, inhalation or by consuming contaminated food or water. This means someone could drip some onto you, spray you with it or poison your meal. Fortunately it’s so toxic that this would pose a huge risk to your poisoner and so it’s not attempted often.
The only antidote is Atropine administered directly into the thigh or heart. It unlocks the muscles and allows them to relax. Further doses of the drug pralidoxime should also be given to return the cells to normal function. However, treatment must be immediate and requires a hypodermic needle, not something most people carry around. If you’re exposed to a high enough dose you’re likely to asphyxiate before medical staff have even figured out what’s happening to you.
Nerve agents were first invented in Germany in 1936 by Gerhard Schrader. He was attempting to develop a new insecticide that’d be cheaper than nicotine. Unfortunately for everyone, he was too successful and created a compound far too deadly to be used as an insecticide. It was so toxic that when one drop was spilt in the lab Schrader and his assistant were unable to work for 3 weeks. This would become the first nerve agent in the Germany-series or G-Series. They called it Tabun. When World War II broke out Germany took the awful, yet predictable, decision to start mass-producing Tabun. Through this work, advancements were made and more G-Series nerve agents were discovered including Sarin, Soman and Cyclosarin.
After World War II research into pesticides continued and regrettably put into the hands of another over-achiever, Ranajit Ghosh. In 1952 Ghosh was working at Imperial Chemical Industries in the UK. He created a new insecticide, Amiton, which showed incredible success in killing lice on plants. It was patented and actually put on the market for use in agriculture before they discovered that it was incredibly toxic to humans. It was withdrawn and renamed agent VG, the first in the V-Series of nerve agents. During the 1950s, Britain had been phasing out its work into chemical weapons. However, the development of VG sparked interest and samples were sent to Porton Down, a facility in England researching chemical weapons. Just as in Germany, they were unsatisfied with the deadliness of VG. So, they worked hard to discover other, more toxic, members of the V-series and Venomous Agent X or VX was created.
Why was everyone so hell bent on creating the nastiest nerve agent possible? The Cold War. Between 1947 and 1991 the struggle for world dominance between the US, the Soviet Union and their respective allies gripped the world. The race to develop nuclear weapons terrified both sides and occupied the nightmares of many. However, there was a second, equally high stakes, arms race being run in secret, chemical weapons. The winner would have the power to kill vast numbers of people in horrific ways. They could control the loser through fear of chemical attacks just as effectively as nuclear.
This race led to the final series of nerve agents being developed during the 1970s and 80s in the Soviet Union. They’re known as the Novichok series or N-series and estimated to be between 5 and 10 times more deadly than VX. They’re now infamous for their use in the poisonings of Ivan Kivelidi and Zara Ismailova in Moscow, 1995. Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England, 2018 and Alexei Navalny on a flight to Moscow in 2020. All attacks allegedly committed by Russian Agents. Fortunately, Novichok was never deployed on a large scale during the Cold War, many would argue due to the fear of a counterattack.
Britain maintains that its interest in the V-series of nerve agents was not purely offensive. They knew that scientists in both Germany and the Soviet Union were working on the compounds and wanted to develop countermeasures. In 1958 the Medical Division at Porton Down were trying to measure the toxicity of the V-series nerve agents. They began campaigning for permission to inject humans with diluted V-agents. However, they were met with extreme resistance from the British government who, rightfully, feared for the safety of participants. You see, in 1953 Aircraftsman Ronald Maddison agreed to take part in a trial assessing the toxicity of Sarin. 200 milligrams of the compound was dripped onto his arm through 2 layers of clothing. Tragically, he fell unconscious within half an hour and died the same day. Where was this experiment conducted? Porton Down, of course. So you can see why the government were in no hurry to repeat history.
Clearly, the Porton Down scientists were pretty formidable. Worrying the Soviets would succeed in creating a deadly V-agent and use it against Britain they took matters into their own hands, literally. The assistant director, William Laddell, and his colleague submitted themselves for unauthorised testing. They survived, having exposed themselves to half the lethal amount. When officials discovered the self-experimentation they were less than impressed. Laddell reportedly argued that he and his staff were ‘at liberty to use their own skin’ for experiments but it didn’t help his cause. The team were deemed a liability and insubordinate. They were banned from experimenting on humans and had to work on pigs instead. By the end of the 1950s, their VX research was taken away and transferred to the more responsible US.
Well, I don’t know what it is about the scientists that work with nerve agents but they went and did the exact same thing. The details of VX were passed to Van M Sim, Director of human research at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. He soon began self-experimentation and later progressed to mass human testing. These tests are now the subject of a class-action lawsuit. Brought by the survivors of the thousands of soldiers subjected to the horrific experiments at the facility.
At great human cost, the work was successful and the US began producing huge quantities of VX at a rate of almost 10 tonnes a day. The scientists involved still defend their actions. Notably, Colonel James S. Ketchum who published his memoir entitled ‘Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten’ in 2006. He claimed that the research was a reasonable response to the Cold War. They were terrified that the Soviet Union were developing their own V-Agents and would get there first. Testing the toxicity and developing mitigation methods was the only defense. The subjects, who still suffer nightmares and for the most part are still unsure what was done to them, feel there was probably a better way.
While using it, supposedly defensively, on UK and US citizens VX caused no deaths. Regretfully, its story doesn’t end there. The first victims of VX numbered 3000 in a horrific mass death that left bodies scattered across the hills of Skull Valley, Utah in 1968. Luckily, or not depending on how highly you rate people, the deaths were not humans but sheep. Dugway Proving Ground, a US Army base used for testing chemical and biological weapons had been working with VX. They used a jet to spray 320 gallons of the nerve agent over barren Dugway ground in a weapons test. The plane carrying the VX malfunctioned and accidentally released the gas at a higher altitude than planned. This caused it to be blown off target and onto the grazing land of the sheep. The Army refused to take responsibility, fearing that they’d have to close the base. However, they did pay $376,685 to Alvin Hatch, the sheep rancher and lent bulldozers for the mass sheep burial. How generous.
Since then VX has been used in several attacks against humans. In 1988 the UN found that Cuba had deployed it against insurgents during the Angolan Civil War. They discovered traces of it in soil, water and plant samples taken from areas where Cuban forces had carried out counter-insurgency operations. Saddam Hussain has also been accused of using VX. Particularly in the Halabja chemical attack. He denied the allegations claiming he’d researched it but had been unable to produce or weaponise any. However, traces were found on the remnants of warheads. Further VX attacks took place in 1994. A Japanese cult, AUM Shinrikyo began synthesising it themselves. They used it on a number of cult members, suspected to be spies. This lead to the deaths of two men.
The most notable murder attributed to VX is of Kim Jong-nam. Half brother of Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. In 2017 he was travelling through Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia. Two separate women approached him and wiped his face with wet cloths. He reported it to authorities before becoming ill. He died of a seizure in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Initially, VX seemed implausible as the women hadn’t died and would’ve been exposed to VX fumes from the cloths. However, swabs of his eyes contained the compound and authorities were able to put it together. VX can be made by simply mixing two non-fatal substances. If each woman carried a different substance on her cloth they would not form the deadly nerve agent until mixed on Kim Jong-nam’s face. North Korea maintains a stockpile of VX and the assassination was allegedly ordered as he was a threat to Kim Jong-un’s leadership. This is a secret unlikely to ever be revealed.
Who Has VX?
North Korea is not the only country who’ve chosen to hoard vast amounts of the deadly nerve agent. The United States, UK, Russia, Syria and Sudan have all been known to produce and stockpile VX. Fortunately, it’s now been categorised as a weapon of mass destruction. This prohibits the production and stockpiling of more than 100g per year with exceptions for research, medical and pharmaceutical uses. These have a limit of 10kg. Still too high for me to feel comfortable with but a vast improvement on 10 tonnes a day.
Happily, many countries have now chosen to destroy their stocks of VX. In 1969 the US government cancelled its chemical weapons programs and production of the nerve agent. How do you destroy tonnes of a nerve agent so deadly a single drop could kill a person? Mostly, you burn it and several incineration plants got to work in 1990. Before that though, with a name that oozes true American style, the US Army implemented program CHASE – Cut Holes and Sink ‘Em. They filled old ships with enormous quantities of chemical weapons, took them out into the sea and sank them.
Even Russia has been destroying their chemical weapons. In 1991 the Cooperative threat reduction program was set up to deescalate the whole weapons of mass destruction situation. Countries like the US provided financial assistance and support to states in the former Soviet Union to decommission their weapons. This included nuclear, biological and chemical weapons stockpiles. In May 2009 the Shchuchye chemical weapons decommission plant opened, tasked with destroying vast quantities of Sarin and VX. However, cooperation has since broken down and they’re supposedly continuing the work on their own. Hopefully.
In other good news, the Chemical Weapons Conventions (CWC) were agreed in 1997 and almost all of the countries holding VX have been destroying it. There’s even a monitoring body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, overseeing the mass chemical disarming of the planet. Unfortunately, North Korea is one of 4 countries refusing to sign and the assassination of Kim Jong-nam demonstrates they have the ability to both produce and use it. Luckily, VX is difficult to weaponize long distance. Long-range missiles wouldn’t work as the impact explosion would destroy the compound, so aircraft is the only option. This vastly reduces the likelihood of any intercontinental attacks. Perhaps not so reassuring for any neighbours of North Korea though.