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Can Nerve Gas Leak Through a Safety Net?

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PRESIDENT BUSH, Congress, and Mikhail Gorbachev all seem to agree on one thing. As a House resolution stated, ``The successful completion of [the Chemical Weapons Convention] should be one of the highest arms control priorities.'' Only two bottlenecks remain in the road leading to the final abolition of chemical weapons: a procedure for mandatory challenge inspections - the ``safety net'' - and agreement on the order in which known chemical weapons and factories are to be destroyed.

Efforts to institute international controls began at the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907. After nations experienced the horrors of mustard gas in World War I, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles ``permanently'' prohibited the importation and manufacture of poison gas in Germany. The Washington Treaty of 1921 and the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned the use of poison gas. But after 1919, German chemists developed highly lethal new agents - the nerve gases tabun and sarin - and German factories manufactured more than 200,000 tons. Although Germany did not use chemical agents in World War II, the use of poison gas has continued in other conflicts - such as the Iran-Iraq war.

The hope that new efforts to eliminate these barbarous weapons will be more successful lies in verification.

Recent events in the Angolan civil war illustrate the problem of verification, however. Investigations by Belgian toxicologist Aubin Heyndrickx confirmed reports that hundreds of Angolans were dying without sign of injury or were suffering from symptoms such as paralysis after bombardment by Soviet-made weapons. Although many of Dr. Heyndrickx's tests were negative, poisoning could not be ruled out because of the time that had elapsed since the attack. Some of the tests were positive - showing nerve gas or cyanide. Also, a Soviet-made kit for the detection of poison gas was taken from a captured Angolan soldier. A captured military-intelligence officer explained how he personally used such a kit in offensive actions.

Heyndrickx concluded that gas was being used against the people of Angola by Cuban troops under Soviet supervision. Further, he wrote that some were ``completely new gases with severe irreversible toxic effects on man. At the moment, no treatment with any pharmaceutical we studied can help; further toxicological and medical investigation and research are urgently needed.''

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