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How Chemical Weapons, Widely Shunned, Won’t Go Away

Soldiers blinded by mustard gas waiting for treatment outside an advanced dressing station near Bethune, after the Battle of Estaires, April 10th, 1918. 

Soldiers blinded by mustard gas waiting for treatment outside an advanced dressing station near Bethune, after the Battle of Estaires, April 10th, 1918. 

Source: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
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The first agreement to ban chemical weapons came in 1675, when France and the Holy Roman Empire forswore use of poisoned musket balls. Three centuries and at least six international treaties later, and despite the macabre specter of their use in World War I, they have remained a fixture in the arsenals of authoritarian regimes. Now, with Russian forces suffering heavy losses after their invasion of Ukraine, concerns have risen that Russia will employ chemical weapons in its war there.

Chemicals used to cause intentional death or harm through their toxic properties are defined by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons as chemical weapons. So are munitions, devices and other equipment designed to weaponize toxic chemicals. One chemical that can be turned into a weapon is chlorine, a “choking agent.” It is absorbed through the lungs and irritates the nose, throat and lungs, causing fluid to build up, choking the victim. Sulfur mustard, meanwhile, is a “blister agent.” It causes large and often life-threatening skins blisters that resemble severe burns.