Can Nerve Gas Leak Through a Safety Net?

By , Jane M. Orient, who practices internal medicine in Tucson, Ariz., is a former president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness.

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.

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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.''

But the only apparent urgency of the US government is to sign another agreement to destroy such weapons, and perhaps to tighten the ``safety net.''

To be sure, the US should do all it can to prevent the manufacture of chemical weapons and assure the destruction of those already made.

Even so, the Libyan complex near Rabta, which will soon be capable of producing tens of tons of nerve gas daily, was near completion before its purpose was brought to light. And a factory that manufactures pharmaceuticals, pesticides, or fertilizer could be converted to a chemical-warfare plant within hours. Thus, a tightened network of export controls could still have leaks.

In efforts to seal up the pores and loopholes in the Chemical Weapons Convention, one sort of protection from poison gas is routinely overlooked by Americans. But the Soviet response to the threat is illustrated by the following:

A picture book for first graders shows little girls lined up in nurses' outfits - in front of a poster displaying a gas mask. Second graders learn how to sew a gauze mask in case a better one is unavailable. Fifth graders practice wearing a gas mask, and older students take a final exam in a gas chamber. During civil defense drills, factory workers do their jobs in full protective gear.

As part of the annual 20 hours of civil-defense training required of all citizens, Soviets learn how to use decontaminating solutions.

The Soviet military has 30,000 decontamination vehicles, and most combat vehicles are equipped with a chemical-protection system. About 45,000 fully trained chemical specialists serve in regular Warsaw Pact ground forces.

Soviet bomb shelters are designed to protect against gas as well as blast and radiation. Positive pressure is maintained within shelters so that all entering air must pass through the filtration system.

Although Mr. Gorbachev has stated that he favors the ``complete liquidation of chemical weapons,'' and is willing to destroy the 50,000 tons that the Soviet Union admits to having, there has been no apparent change in Soviet chemical forces or training programs.

Some believe that Soviet chemical-warfare doctrine is purely defensive. Possibly so. But should one side rely on a safety net, while the other insists on filters and decontaminating solutions?

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