On March 4, 2018, a father and daughter enjoyed a meal at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. Two hours before sunset, the two took ill. A passing doctor and nurse found the couple unresponsive, on a park bench.
Sergei Skripal, age 66, and his daughter Yulia (33) were slipping in and out of consciousness, foaming at the mouth with eyes wide open, but entirely white. The Skripals were weeks in intensive care before regaining consciousness. In a May 23 interview with CBS News, Yulia said “I don’t want to describe the details, but the clinical treatment was invasive, painful and depressing.”
Like the Russian State Security operative turned defector Alexander Litvinenko before them, Sergei Skripal knew his former boss had a very long reach. In 2006, Litvinenko took ill on the streets of England, poisoned by the radioactive element Pollonium-210, slipped into his tea. Skripal it turns out was a former Russian military officer and double agent for British intelligence. Twelve years earlier Litvinenko suffered a long and terrible death. Skripal and his daughter recovered. The former spy is rumored to be living in New Zealand, under an assumed name.
British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian “diplomats” following the 2018 incident. While Vladimir Putin’s government vehemently denies the charge, the Skripal matter has been classified as an attempted assassination using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.
The terrifying history of nerve agents began in 1936, when the German biochemist Dr. Gerhard Schrader was working on pesticides. Dr. Schrader first experienced problems with his eyesight, and soon had difficulty breathing. Symptoms included involuntary muscular spasms. Within days the scientist’s arm was fully paralyzed.
Dr. Schrader had discovered a class of chemical compounds known as organo-phosphates.
Organo-phosphates are a class of organic chemical which block nerve signals to bodily organs. Nerve agents are generally clear to a golden amber in color, tasteless liquids which may be evaporated, into a gas. The Sarin gas used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikio attack on the Tokyo subway was odorless as was the VX used to assassinate the brother of Kim Jong-un, in 2017.
Symptoms of nerve agent poisoning begin with constriction of pupils and convulsions, leading to involuntary urination and defecation. Death follows within minutes caused by asphyxiation, or cardiac arrest.
In the 1950s, British chemist Dr. Ranajit Ghosh discovered the “V”series of organophosphate, sold as a pesticide in 1954 under the trade name Amiton. The stuff was soon judged too dangerous for safe use and taken off the market. British Armed Forces took control of the compound at Porton Downs and traded it to the United States in 1958, for information on thermo-nuclear weapons.
In 1961, the American military went into full-scale production of VX gas as a chemical weapon of war. The Soviet military developed an analog called VR in 1963 later developed into the Novichok group, including the most toxic molecules ever developed.
The Dugway Proving Ground near Salt lake City Utah was established in 1941 and used for hundreds if not thousands of open-air tests of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) compounds.
A 1994 the US GAO (General Accounting Office) reported:
“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”.
Skull Valley is a geologic formation bordering the Great Salt Lake Desert near Dugway, in the south of Utah. On March 17, 1968, the manager of a Skull Valley livestock company phoned the department of ecology and epidemiology at Dugway to report the unexplained death of 3,000 sheep.
The Dugway safety office compiled a count of 3,843 dead animals. Exact cause of death was at first difficult to determine, since “no other animals of any type, including cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, or birds, appeared to have suffered any ill effects, a circumstance that was hard to explain if VX had in fact caused the sheep deaths.”
Necropsies revealed the presence of VX nerve agent, as did grass and snow samples taken, some three weeks after the incident. Total sheep fatalities were counted at 6,000-6,400 including those humanely euthanized. With even a suspicion of VX nerve agent, the animals had no market value whatsoever either for meat, or for wool.
A report which remained classified for thirty years blamed a faulty nozzle left open as the test aircraft, gained altitude.
Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding. President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” agents, in 1969.
Few nations possess stockpiles of nerve agents, a hellish weapon of war which may, with a mere puff of wind, turn on those who would use it. The use of such an agent would almost certainly lead to nuclear retaliation should any nation so attacked, possess the capability.
Today on the morning news we hear of “scum” and “insects” who must be “purged” from the Russian nation. These are the pronouncements of the dictator Vladimir Putin, words we haven’t heard since the days of the Third Reich or the terrible monstrosity of Stalin’s USSR, words directed this time at Putin’s own countrymen, objectors to the war of aggression being carried out even now, against their neighbors in Ukraine.
The nations of the world release statements but stand at bay, fearful of the horrors as yet locked away in the darkness, of Pandora’s box. Like the hideous three-headed dog Cerberus standing guard at the gates of hell we shrink in horror at that terrible and yet benign sounding term, NBC. We hold a wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on yet unable, to let go.