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Chlorine: Old chemical scourge raises new fears

When Iraqi insurgents blew up trucks carrying chlorine, the attacks conjured images of chemical warfare and soldiers choking on the battlefields of  World War I. The explosions also raised concerns about what insurgents in Iraq know, and what they're learning.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Iraqi insurgents this week blew up trucks carrying chlorine, the attacks conjured up frightening images of chemical warfare and soldiers choking to death on the battlefields of Belgium in World War I.

The explosions also raised concerns the insurgents in Iraq have the know-how and flexibility to adopt new tactics, including the pursuit of chemical bombs in an increasingly deadly and chaotic war.

Chlorine gas attacks the eyes and lungs within seconds, causing difficulty in breathing and skin irritation in low-level exposure. Inhaled at extremely high levels, it dissolves in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid that burns lung tissue, essentially drowning a person as liquid floods the lungs.

The tactic has been used at least three times since Jan. 28, when a truck carrying explosives and a chlorine tank blew up in Anbar province. More than a dozen people were reported killed in the Anbar attack.

On Tuesday, a bomb planted on a chlorine tanker left more than 150 villagers stricken north of Baghdad. The following day, a pickup truck carrying chlorine gas cylinders was blown apart in Baghdad, killing at least five people and sending more than 55 to hospitals gasping for breath and rubbing stinging eyes.

Then Thursday, U.S. troops uncovered a chemical munitions plant near Fallujah, with three vehicle bombs being assembled, including a truck bomb, about 65 propane tanks and “all kinds of ordinary chemicals,” said U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell.

Caldwell said he thought insurgents were planning to mix chemicals with explosives, although it was not clear if chlorine gas was present.

Insurgents not experts — yet
Despite fears over the new tactic, some experts note the insurgents so far are not expert at it, meaning they may be causing widespread fear but not mass casualties.

Steve Kornguth, director of the biological and chemical defense program at the University of Texas in Austin, said the Iraq explosions are not “chlorine bombs.”

“They are putting canisters of chlorine on trucks with bombs, which then puncture the canisters and release the chemical,” Kornguth said. “But it hasn’t been very effective because the high temperature created by the bombs oxidizes the chemical, making it less dangerous.”

Instead of dispersing chlorine gas — which causes death by inhalation — the heat from the explosion can render the gas nontoxic, Kornguth said.

Jeremy Binnie, an analyst with Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, noted that it is unclear how many in the Iraq attacks died from the explosions and how many were victims of the chlorine itself.

But many American anti-terrorism experts have long believed that terrorists do not need sophisticated knowledge to use toxic industrial chemicals as terrorist tools.

Chlorine is easily accessible. It is used for water purification plants, bleaches and disinfectants. Finding people who can obtain large quantities may not be too difficult, experts believe.

To make a bomb, the insurgents would have to “hijack a whole lot of trucks carrying chlorine,” Binnie said. “So far, they have only been blowing them up. ... It is the psychological threat that is more important, and that is huge here.”

Impact on warfare ...
Chlorine marked the first use of chemical weapons in history, when the German military unleashed the gas at Ypres, Belgium in 1915. It caused panic among soldiers unprepared for gas war.

Overall, chemical poisons killed tens of thousands of soldiers in World War I, but the poisons were not considered effective militarily because clouds often drifted back toward the attackers.

Their use caused so much international revulsion, however, that the issue sparked the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which banned the use of chemical weapons.

In general, chlorine is inefficient as a weapon — it produces a visible greenish cloud and a strong odor, making it easy to detect. Because it is water-soluble, simply covering the mouth and nose with a damp cloth can reduce the effect of the gas.

“The countermeasures are so easy and we’ve known about them since World War I. ... But the Iraqi civilians in general aren’t prepared,” said Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Studies Program.

... and on the environment
Chlorine has also been the source of environmental accidents.

In 2005, a freight train veered off a track near a small town in South Carolina, rear-ending a parked train and rupturing a car carrying chlorine. The poisonous cloud killed nine people and injured 250.

A U.S. Homeland Security scenario drafted in 2004 estimated a large chlorine tank explosion on U.S. soil could lead to 17,500 deaths, 10,000 severe injuries and 100,000 hospitalizations.

As officials try to maneuver to deal with the new tactic, the No. 2 American general in Iraq, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, said he doesn’t believe the attacks necessarily signal a more capable insurgency.

He called the chlorine attacks “just another way they’re trying to adapt to cause some sort of chaos.”