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Edited by L K Engman et al (pp 96). Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) Briefing Book, ON, 2002:2. Sweden: Swedish Defence Research Agency
Current concerns about terrorism have raised the spectre of chemical warfare. Coming at the end of a period of chemical weapon disarmament among many countries this is depressing indeed. The mid 1990s incidents involving the release of the nerve agent sarin on the Tokyo subway have confirmed the reality of the threat: what can be made once can be made, and used, again. Because of this, toxicologists, pharmacologists, and physicians need to have access to texts that provide information in this area.
Such sources are few but this small, very well illustrated and up to date book is one of the best—especially as an introduction to the field. The Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) has a long and distinguished history in providing information on the chemical weapons field: this book confirms the unusual level of expertise that FOI can bring to bear in this area.
The book begins with an account of the history of chemical weapons. This is short but surprisingly detailed. An account of disarmament follows—again very interesting—and then a description of chemical weapons munitions is provided. This contains a lot of difficult to find information with details of how terrorists have used chemicals to kill and maim. Toxicologists will be most interested in the section dealing with individual chemical warfare agents. The choice of substances is unsurprising, but the descriptions of mechanisms and effects are first class and some useful graphs I had not seen before are included. The distinction between sarin and soman in terms of the mild effects–severe effects gap (expressed in terms of concentration)—much narrower in the case of soman than sarin—is something I have not seen elsewhere. The description of the clinical effects of exposure to mustard gas is accurate, though the authors might have stressed the prolonged photophobia and lacrimation, seen in some cases, more strongly. Therapy is well described, with HI-6 figuring as the oxime of choice in nerve agent poisoning. The authors do not mention pralicoxime salts and do not discuss obidoxime, though they show its formula. Availability of oximes is not discussed. This seems a weakness as some readers may think that HI-6 is readily available: it is not.
Further sections deal with decontamination and protection: suits and respirators are described. Managing an incident is described and the authors sensibly build their recommendations on how chemical incidents that do not involve chemical warfare agents should be managed. Detection systems are described. Detector paper, as well as complex instruments, is described and this is helpful: detector paper may have an important role to play in rapid checking of chemicals spilled on the ground. A nice device for detecting nerve agents is described: the Detection Ticket 90 system. The book concludes with a short glossary and a carefully chosen bibliography.
In conclusion, this is the best short and well illustrated account of chemical weapons I have seen. The authors have sensibly stayed away from too much detail and controversy, but anybody following their advice will handle an incident involving chemical weapons in a safe and competent way. This is an excellent book that should be in every toxicologist’s library.