Scars that Never Heal—The Biological and Generational Impact of Chemical Warfare on Mankind

By Armaan Singh


“Only the dead have seen the end of war” -Plato


Ever since the dawn of man, humans have roped themselves into endless conflicts over land,

respect, and alliances. Beginning as makeshift tools made of wood, weapons of destruction were then created from copper, steel, and then finally lead. It was not until the 20th century when the most destructive weapons were developed. These were the weapons of which effects had never healed, and the ones that had passed down biological destruction from generation to generation. These were chemical weapons and they were unlike anything man had ever seen before.

It is crucial to understand the history behind the use of chemical weapons that destroy populations and the environment. The negative impact on future generations’ biological health long after a conflict's conclusion is tragic and scientifically alarming. Chemical warfare has existed since ancient times and, most recently, was used in five key global conflicts:

Mustard gas was used in WW1 and the Iran-Iraq War and the purpose of the gas was to weaken the enemy. In WW1, chemical weaponry was used to cripple and incapacitate entrenched soldiers. In WW2, during Hiroshima, chemical weapons were used due to America’s belief that the only way to get Japan to surrender was to unleash a decisive and devastating atrocity. In Vietnam, American armed forces used Agent Orange to defoliate forests that would further reveal evasive guerilla fighters. Agent Orange, which contains dioxin, exposed to an estimated 2.1-4.8 million Vietnamese and 40 years later, the adverse impact on their health is devastating. In the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian forces would attack the enemy with large waves of soldiers, and Iraq retaliated with chemical gas. Finally in the Syrian civil war, Bashar Al Assad gassed rebel territory to terrorize the population until its submission (Talabani, Kadir 2017). One thing is apparent for chemical weapons throughout their use: they are extraordinarily destructive for decades beyond the initial conflict in ways bullets and shrapnel can never achieve.


What are the immediate biological effects of chemical weapons? Mustard gas, which was

often used in the first World War and the Iran Iraq war, is extremely fatal in large doses. Mustard gas quickly reacts with water in the victims’ airways which leads to the formation of hydrochloric acid. This acid obstructs and damages the lungs which causes a slow painful suffocation. On the other hand, exposure to Agent Orange which was used in Vietnam, led to darkening of the skin, a dermatological disease known as chloracne and resulted in prostate tumors (Najafian, Shohrati, Saburi 2012).


The effect of chemical warfare does not stop with the initial victim. Rather, the adverse

effects are carried down from generation to generation. Two of the earliest observations occur in the aforementioned Agent Orange and mustard gas. The descendants of veterans exposed to mustard gas in the Iran- Iraq war were reported to have a higher prevalence of asthma. Following a similar pattern, the descendants of the Vietnam war veterans were reported to have birth defects such as spina bifida. Multiple birth defects and deformities are being detected in third and fourth generation families. Now you may ask, how are these mutations and diseases passed down generationally?



The key root of this lies within the human cell. In our own body we are often playing a tug of war with nature. The body regulates this and helps us maintain a neutral state of equilibrium that is also known as homeostasis. Homeostasis is the body’s ability to maintain a constant internal environment. When small external forces such as viruses and bacteria enter the body, homeostasis is disrupted and the body works abnormally and you feel sick—until homeostasis is regained. Now, knowing that a small bug could affect your body, imagine how toxic chemicals—designed for efficient but slow killing—impact homeostasis? Atomic bomb survivors are victims of ionizing radiation that damages DNA and these mutations are passed down to the next generation. Mustard gas is also known as a cytotoxic agent and is extremely harmful. Its active intermediate known as sulfonium ion has a quick and negative reaction to many important parts of the cell such as proteins and nucleic acids, and has adverse effects on amines and phosphates. The worst effect is crosslinking, which binds two strands via a covalent bond. This has been found to be fatal to a cell and can possibly be passed down to offspring. Mustard gas is also speculated to have an effect on spermiogenesis.


Epidemiological studies show mustard gas has long term effects on the immune

system, blood system, nervous, and reproductive systems. With Agent Orange, there is proof that the offspring of Vietnam veterans are more likely to have conditions such as Spina Bifida, yet more research is needed to explore genetic explanations. Some scientists point to carcinogens and hormonal imbalances—while others disagree. For example, Aschengrau and Monson (1990) found the following:


“Overall, Vietnam veterans were at a slightly higher risk of fathering infants with certain

congenital malformations, they noted two limitations to their findings. First, the authors [Aschengrau and Monson] considered the sample group of subjects to be too small, especially when comparing specific birth defects. Second, they noted that the congenital anomalies could also be related to maternal behaviors during the pregnancy and complications during delivery, not just paternal exposure to Agent Orange. Like the CDC researchers, Aschengrau and Monson recommended larger studies to clarify whether or not Vietnam veterans or Agent Orange-exposed Vietnam veterans were at increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes like birth defects and stillbirths.” (Chou 2017)


Transgenerational epigenetics (Skinner 2013) is a breakthrough area that studies inherited changes (often through mutation and exposure to chemicals where methyl molecules interfere with DNA function intergenerationally) that cannot be explained by traditional genetics. Regardless of limited research and studies, we can conclude that the devastating impact of these weapons is passed down and reveals further how a war’s devastation can remain in our future biological bloodline.


What did you learn?

Questions:

1) What is the impact of mustard gas on humans?


Mustard gas quickly reacts with water in the victims’ airways which leads to the formation of

hydrochloric acid. This acid obstructs and damages the lungs which causes a slow painful

suffocation.


2) What is homeostasis?


The body regulates this and helps us maintain a neutral state of equilibrium that is also known as homeostasis. Homeostasis is the body’s ability to maintain a constant internal environment. When small external forces such as viruses and bacteria enter the body -homeostasis is disrupted and the body works abnormally and you feel sick until homeostasis is regained.


3) What evidence is there of birth defects from chemical weapons?


Mustard gas is also known as a cytotoxic agent and is extremely harmful. Its active intermediate known as sulfonium ion has a quick and negative reaction to many important parts of the cell such as proteins and nucleic acids, and has adverse effects on amines and phosphates. The worst effect is crosslinking which binds two strands via a covalent bond. This has been found to be fatal to a cell and possibly passed down to offspring. Mustard gas is also speculated to have an effect on spermiogenesis. Epidemiological studies show mustard gas long term effects on the immune system, blood system, nervous and reproductive systems.


Citations

https://cck-law.com/agent-orange/can-a-fathers-agent-orange-exposure-cause-birth-defects/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917398/

https://www.usnews.com/opinion/world-report/articles/2017-04-10/why-did-syrias-bashar-assad-use-chemical-weapons

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/the-toxins-that-affected-your-great-grandparents-could-be-in-your-genes-180947644/

https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/agent-orange-birth-defects

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0960327117734620


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