March 17, 1968 Skull Valley

on this day in 1968, a livestock company discovered the death of some 3,000 sheep grazing in the area of Skull Valley, some 27 miles from the proving ground. The cause of death was anything but clear.

The story begins at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, 90 miles southwest of London. The father-daughter pair had just finished a meal when both, began to feel ill. Before long, a doctor and nurse passing by found the pair, on a park bench.

Sergei (age 66) and Yulia Skripal (33) were slipping in and out of consciousness. With foam at the mouth and sightless eyes wide open and yet, entirely white, it was clear that father and daughter were in desperate distress..  Sergei and Yulia spent the following weeks in intensive care before regaining consciousness.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal

While Vladimir Putin’s Russia vehemently denies the charge, the incident has been classified as an attempted assassination carried out against the former spy and his daughter, using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.

The terrifying history of “nerve agents” begins in 1936, when the German biochemist Dr. Gerhard Schrader was working on pesticides.  Schrader first experienced problems with his eyesight, and soon developed difficulty, in breathing. Symptoms included involuntary muscular spasms. Days later, 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 capable of blocking nerve signals to bodily organs. Generally clear to a golden amber in color, nerve agents take the form of tasteless liquids which may be evaporated, into a gas.

The Sarin gas used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikio attack on the Tokyo subway was entirely 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 by asphyxiation or cardiac arrest often follows, within minutes.

British chemist Dr. Ranajit Ghosh discovered the “V” series of organophosphates in the 1950s, sold as a pesticide in 1954 under the trade name Amiton. The stuff was soon taken off the market, as it was too dangerous for safe use. British Armed Forces took control of the compound at Porton Downs and traded the compound to the United States in 1958, in exchange for information on thermo-nuclear weapons technology.

In 1961, the American military went into full-scale production of VX gas as a chemical weapon of war. Two years later, the Russian military developed an analog of VX called VR and later developed into the Novichok group, including the most toxic molecules ever developed.

Dugway Proving Ground

The Dugway Proving Ground near Salt lake City Utah was established in 1941, becoming the site for hundreds if not thousands of open-air tests of nuclear, biological and chemical compounds.

“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”.

1994 GAO (US General Accounting Office report

It was this day in 1968, a livestock company discovered the death of some 3,000 sheep grazing in the area of Skull Valley, some 27 miles from the proving ground. The cause of death was anything but clear.

All told, the Dugway safety office compiled a count of some 3,843 dead animals. Exact cause of death was difficult to determine. Some animals remained alive sitting motionless on the ground, exhibiting normal breathing patterns with seemingly no ability to move, or to eat. Educator and author Edward Regis writes in The Biology of Doom: The History of America’s Secret Germ Warfare Project: “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 deaths amounted to 6,000-6,400 including those humanely euthanized.  With even the suspicion of VX nerve agent, the animals had no market value, either for meat, or for wool.

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.

Today, 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 that capability.  So it is the nations of the world hold the proverbial wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on, and unable to let go.

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