US warned not to plunge into chemical weapons race

The major threat to man and his environment is still nuclear war, says a leading ecology expert. But pollution and depletion of oceans, earth, and forests are close behind and gaining fast.

Dr. Arthur H. Westing, author of "Warfare in a Fragile World," published March 28 by the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), is deeply concerned about chemical and biological warfare, too.

US State Department statements that the US "awaits clarification" of allegations of Soviet germ-warfare preparations are backed by "meager evidence," Dr. Westing said in a telephone interview from Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass. He serves there as professor of ecology and dean of natural science.

Dr. Westing says he believes that in its comment on reports that an accident released deadly anthrax bacillus near Sverdlovsk, USSR, last year, allegedly causing fatalities, "the US is grasping at straws to try to embarrass the Soviet Union, and is on shaky ground." Both the US and the Soviets signed the 1925 convention banning chemical or biological warfare agents.

However, Dr. Westing says, alleged use of toxic gas by the Soviets or their surrogates, most recently in Afghanistan, has spurred the US Defense Department to ask for funds to build up a new stock of US chemical weapons.

Instead of doing this, Dr. Westing urges, the US should sign a separate convention specifically excluding chemical stockpiling.

"It's a dumb argument," Dr. Westing adds, "to say that because a country appears to be preparing to attack you with one particular weapon, you have to reply in kind. This applies to nuclear weapons, too."

Dr. Westing, trained as a botanist, earlier vote for SIPRI two other books on war and the environment -- "Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War" and "Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Environment."

In his new work, he warns of recent research on how nuclear explosions, as well as contaminating water and vegetation (as did the US tests on the Pacific islands of Bikini and Eniwetok for at least 20 years), may also critically deplete the stratospheric ozone layer which protects all life on earth.

The book traces how, "of the various sources of radio- active pollution, nuclear weapons testing has, up to now, been by far the worst offender." About 258 large nuclear-powered submarines and 12 or so surface ships have added to radioactivity and damage to marine life.

Offshore oil wells are vulnerable to enemy attack in wartime, Dr. Westing acknowledges. However, he points out that spectacular oil-leakage accidents, like the North Sea offshore well blowout of April 1977, and the Ixtoc I blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in June 1979 provide only about 5 percent of ocean oil pollution.

A major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean, Dr. Westing warns, might touch off a chain reaction involving "extensive ice-melting of long duration," perhaps profoundly modifying the global climate.

US dependence on foreign oil and mineral sources, he suggests, largely determines its foreign policy. He cites as an example US dependence on South African chromium.

Dr. Westing states, with the obvious approval of his publisher, SIPRI: "It can be argued that the most urgent . . . arms control measures . . . are the absolute prohibition of nuclear weapons."

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