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The myth of harmless old poison gas

As predicted, liberals have been busily downplaying the news that between 2003 and 2006 our troops in Iraq have found ~500 warheads containing chemical weapons. The typical response to the news goes something like “aw heck, they’re old and degraded chemicals that pose no danger to anybody.”
Not so fast, my unhinged eager leftist friends. Those of us who prefer thinking to emoting have answers for you.
Jim Geraghty’s mustard gas smackdown of Alan Colmes got me thinking. How much would a batch of that nasty stuff degrade between being hidden after the First Gulf War and being unearthed this year? I read the passage of the UN letter quoted by Geraghty …

Iraq declared that 550 shells filled with mustard had been “lost” shortly after the Gulf War. To date, no evidence of the missing munitions has been found. Iraq claimed that the chemical warfare agents filled into these weapons would be degraded a long time ago and, therefore, there would be no need for their accounting. However, a dozen mustard-filled shells were recovered at a former CW storage facility in the period 1997-1998. The chemical sampling of these munitions, in April 1998, revealed that the mustard was still of the highest quality. After seven years, the purity of mustard ranged between 94 and 97%. Thus, Iraq has to account for these munitions which would be ready for combat use. The resolution of this specific issue would also increase confidence in accepting Iraq�s other declarations on losses of chemical weapons which it has not been possible to verify.

… and then I ran some rough numbers.
Let’s be as pessimistic as possible, giving the benefit of every doubt to our friends on the Bush-hating anti-war Left. Assume that the mustard gas started out in 1991 at 100% purity, and degraded to 94% in seven years. That’s roughly 0.88% decay per year. Now assume there’s an identical batch hidden somewhere else in Iraq, and it has continued to spoil at the same rate from 1991 until 2006. It would now be just under 88% pure.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not eager to get a whiff of that stuff, nor to get any of it on my skin. A mere 12% decrease in toxicity isn’t enough to bring the warm fuzzies back to my innards.
Here’s some more nitty-gritty on mustard gas in case you’re interested.
Now, let’s dispense with the “harmless Sarin gas” myth. Sarin is a binary agent, meaning that it’s made up of two different precursor chemicals. To deploy a binary nerve agent, you first mix the precursors and then scatter the resulting nasty gas around.
Storing a binary agent in its unitary (mixed) form doesn’t make much sense because it’s quite unstable and degrades quickly. The CIA has estimated that some unitary Sarin made by Iraq before and during the Iran/Iraq War had a shelf life measured in weeks.
The same CIA report indicates that Iraq solved that problem by both improving the purity of its Sarin precursors and storing the precursors separately to eliminate the degradation problem. This report says that binary munitions like Sarin will remain potent until they are destroyed by Coalition forces. Again giving the lefties the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume that this is the Coalition of 1991, not the 2003 version. This would maximize the time available to let the hidden Sarin munitions degrade.
But wait a moment. That would only happen if the Iraqis stored it in unitary form … which the report says they stopped doing. So we can presume that hidden Iraqi Sarin munitions would exist in binary form, and that means no degradation. Well, guess what’s already turned up in roadside bombs used against our troops in Iraq? You guessed it: Sarin artillery shells in binary form.
Now look at the key points in the declassified report released by Senator Santorum and Representative Hoekstra:

� Since 2003 Coalition forces have recovered approximately 500 weapons munitions which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent. [Emphasis added]
� Despite many efforts to locate and destroy Iraq�s pre-Gulf War chemical munitions, filled and unfilled pre-Gulf War chemical munitions are assessed to still exist.
� Pre-Gulf War Iraqi chemical weapons could be sold on the black market. Use of these weapons by terrorists or insurgent groups would have implications for Coalition forces in Iraq. The possibility of use outside Iraq cannot be ruled out.
� The most likely munitions remaining are sarin and mustard-filled projectiles.
� The purity of the agent inside the munitions depends on many factors, including the manufacturing process, potential additives, and environmental storage conditions. While agents degrade over time, chemical warfare agents remain hazardous and potentially lethal.
� It has been reported in open press that insurgents and Iraqi groups desire to acquire and use chemical weapons.

Remember: binary agents stored as unmixed precursors are engineered specifically for long-term storage with minimal care. Where the first key point above refers to “degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent”, the logical way to read that phrase is with “degraded” referring to mustard agent and not referring to Sarin.
Again: unmixed Sarin does not degrade significantly if it’s stored properly. Nothing in the declassified report suggests that the Iraqis stored Sarin in its unitary form, nor that they alsways stored Sarin precursors so poorly that the stuff ended up being mixed (and then degrading to useless toxicity). To the contrary, past experience shows that Iraq stored at least some of its Sarin in binary form, and that terrorists have already used binary munitions against us in at least one roadside bombing.
So much for “harmless Sarin.”
You can find more detail on Sarin here, here, here, and here.