How chemical weapons from the first world war never went away


By Debora MacKenzie ON A bright day in late April, dignitaries gathered in the Belgian town of Ypres for a little-noticed commemoration: the hundredth anniversary of the first modern use of chemical weapons. Under a clear sky, representatives of the 1997 treaty banning such weapons – signed by almost every nation – reaffirmed the unacceptability of their use “anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstances”. As they spoke, there were reports that the Syrian government was dropping chlorine on civilians and ISIS was resurrecting another first world war relic, mustard gas, probably a leftover from the 1980s. So a century after Ypres, are chemical weapons coming back? Despite these recent atrocities, the global ban largely holds. Last year, treaty inspectors confiscated 1300 tonnes of mustard and nerve gas from Syria, largely unopposed. All countries except North Korea, Egypt and Israel have in principle declared their chemical weapons and almost entirely destroyed them, a unique achievement in disarmament. But that doesn’t mean the world is nearly free of chemical weapons – far from it. In many places, there are old, abandoned weapons that weren’t in formal stockpiles when the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997. These forgotten relics still kill or injure people. Some could even be refurbished and reused. The good news is that countries are finally paying attention. Next year, in installations around the world, several former chemical warriors will start erasing their pasts. The bad news: we have little idea how much more of this stuff is out there. “There is no good global database of old and abandoned chemical weapons,
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