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Europe: Czech Scientists Hail Discovery To Neutralize Mustard Gas

By Tereza Nemcova

5 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Czech scientists are touting what they describe as a significant biochemical breakthrough with the development of an environmentally friendly enzyme-based technology that eliminates the lethal effects of mustard gas.

While such banned substances have figured primarily in traditional conflicts since their inception, the global threat of extremist-fueled terrorism arguably makes the findings especially timely.

The results could help neutralize mustard gas -- also known as Yperite after the Belgian town where it was first used in World War I -- in battlefield situations, but could also prove vital if the agent were ever used in a terrorist attack.

Scientists from the Protein Engineering Group of the Science Faculty at Masaryk University in Brno along with the Czech Military Technical Institute of Protection -- working on an assignment from NATO -- announced their results following laboratory testing nearly two years after they began research on the project in the fall of 2003.
No terrorist groups have used mustard gas to date, although some observers believe that Al-Qaeda attempted to purchase the ingredients to produce the agent from laboratories in Afghanistan.

The primary incentives for creating a decontaminating agent for mustard gas are to defend against any possible terrorist attack and to help dispense of aging stockpiles and quantities of the deadly gas that have been dumped into the environment. Czech scientists said mustard gas's active life is up to 100 years when it is stored in an airproof container.

"The enzyme [employed through our method] reacts within minutes, is able to split several molecules of mustard gas per second, and its decontaminating effect is expected to last for hours at an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius," Dr. Jiri Damborsky of Masaryk University, who worked on the project along with two other scientists and a biochemistry student, told RFE/RL. "It has a longevity period of one year when stored at 4 degrees Centigrade."

Terrorist Risk

No terrorist groups have used mustard gas to date, although some observers believe that Al-Qaeda attempted to purchase the ingredients to produce the agent from laboratories in Afghanistan.

According to Colonel Dr. Jiri Kassa, who heads the Czech Defense University Toxicology Department, the essential obstacle to using such a gas lies in the difficulty of disseminating the agent. "The best means of disseminating Yperite or nerve gases is through air-conditioning, by a sprinkler system from a plane, or through water," Kassa said. "Fortunately, terrorists face great difficulties in accessing all of these means of dispersion."

He noted that another factor presumably discouraging terrorists' use of such gases against civilian populations is that the effects and impact on people's psyches are much weaker and slower than more dramatic attacks. "The effect of a bomb blowing up is immediate. The explosion has immediate victims, the loud noise affects people's psyches and behavior," Kassa said. "The quiet dispersion of gas would hardly do the same."

In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo group used sarin gas in its attack on the Tokyo metro, killing 12 and injuring as many as 6,000 people. Experts believe the attack highlighted in particular the difficulty of dispersing sarin gas -- or any other gas -- by a terrorist group. On the other hand, it arguably served as evidence that terrorists seek, first and foremost, government attention and publicity. Others believe bomb attacks have become too much an "ordinary" terrorist act, while a gas attack would draw much closer attention in large part because it would be so out of the ordinary -- and because the harm it could inflict on people is so visibly atrocious. In fact, the Aum Shinrikyo group gained global attention through its attack a decade ago.

Terrorism experts concede that mustard gas is easy to produce. Damborsky told RFE/RL that "any chemical laboratory with average equipment can easily produce Yperite."

Czech Defense Ministry spokesman Jan Pejsek confirmed that production of Yperite is also comparatively cheap, depending on the desired purity of the final product.

Kassa described the lethal effects of mustard gas: "One and a half grams of Yperite dispersed into 1 cubic meter of space [and] inhaled by a person for more than 1 minute carries a 50 percent risk of death. If death does not occur, severe permanent symptoms certainly will." He also noted that production of 1 kilogram of Yperite would cost no more than a few hundred Czech crowns (100 crowns=$4.15), but protecting those who produce it raises the cost to 10,000 crowns.

Mustard Gas's History

Mustard gas was first used on a battlefield during World War I by Germany near the Belgian city of Ypres in September 1917. It is a deadly chemical agent that damages skin, eyes, lungs, and digestive organs by causing severe blistering that can lead to organ failure and death.

Some 400,000 soldiers were exposed to mustard gas during World War I. The fatality rate was 3 percent, while many of those who escaped death suffered permanent damage to their eyes and other after-effects.

Mustard gas was also used in the Spanish-Moroccan, Italian-Ethiopian, Japanese-Chinese, and Egyptian-Yemeni conflicts.

The most recent use of mustard gas is widely believed to have been on the orders of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who allegedly used the poison gas against Kurdish civilians in Northern Iraq in 1988 during the infamous Anfal campaign. According to reports at the time, some 5,000 people died and another 65,000 were left with severe skin and respiratory diseases, while the victims or their children also suffered from abnormally high cancer rates and birth defects.

Saddam Hussein also used mustard gas, tabun, VX, sarin, and cyanide against Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

Non-Military Uses

Large amounts of mustard gas from Nazi stockpiles were dumped into the Baltic and North seas after World War II. In time, with polymerization, the agent can take on the appearance of amber, putting anyone fooled by it at risk of severe health problems.

The recent Czech discovery could help render such deadly waste harmless. The discovery of the enzyme-based technology to decontaminate Yperite is seen as an important step in an ongoing effort to decontaminate all chemical and biological agents that is being coordinated by a special working group within NATO, the Czech Defense Ministry's Pejsek told RFE/RL.

Damborsky said that -- as with many projects NATO assigns to member states -- the research for this project was funded largely by the Czech Defense Ministry, with minimal assistance from NATO. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a simple and fast means to apply the enzyme in emergency situations.

The scientific team has already applied for a grant from the European Union, as well as from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), to complete its research and register the product.

"Even if we are unable to get the full funding from the European Union or the NIAID, we will continue with the research," Damborsky told RFE/RL.

New NATO Tool

The advantage of the recently discovered enzyme lies in the fact that it should not damage the contaminated material to which it is applied, as have previous agents. Damborsky claims in the patent application that when previously available agents were used, corrosion appeared on the surfaces of the decontaminated material -- and that the environment could be seriously affected if the decontaminants came into contact with water or soil.

Once research is completed and the enzyme certified, it will likely be used in the form of a gel or foam applied by a decontaminating sprinkler system or a spraying unit.

Dr. Frantisek Oplustil from the Military Institute said the enzyme could be used to decontaminate the surfaces of technical equipment, structures, human and animal skin, and the environment.