29 No. 6
Multiple Uses of Chemicals:
Clear Choices or Dodgy Deals?
Chemical processes determine much of who we are. Chemistry in the brain provides our sense of being and helps determine how we act. The oxygen we breathe is created by the chemical processes in plants, and the consumer products we buy are the result of chemical processes. Chemistry is central to life on earth, and many major global issues today require chemical solutions, including reducing pollution of the earth’s atmosphere, providing clean water, improving food supplies, and developing new medicines. Chemistry thus has enormous potential to contribute positively to global well being.
Crystal of pseudoephedrine under the microscope of Michael Davidson (Molecular Expressions). Pseudoephedrine, a powerful cold and allergy medicine, can be misused to create crystal meth.
But chemistry has not always been used for the common good. Ninety years ago, during World War I, chemists and chemical engineers used their knowledge to perfect weapons that were based on the physical and toxic properties of chemicals. The use of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas in WWI resulted in some 1.3 million casualties, and it is now estimated that 90 000 died soon after exposure. Many others died years later from lung injuries sustained on the battlefield after inhaling the various chemical warfare gases and aerosols.
In WWI, chemists considered it their duty to contribute to their country’s war effort. Munitions had to be produced to suit military strategy. But the carnage of WWI had a lasting impact. It led to calls for treaties outlawing chemical warfare. The 1925 Geneva Protocol and, 70 years later, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), both enforced chemical disarmament.
Under enforcement rules, governments must ensure that their citizens do not develop or promote chemical weapons. Chemists have a crucial role to play in this process. If the proscriptions of the CWC are to succeed, chemists must support both the letter and the spirit of these treaties. Because chemists will be needed to make chemical warfare agents and test the suitability of new agents for use in munitions, chemists may be put in the position of deciding whether they will help make chemical weapons or refuse to do so.
The law is clear: making chemical weapons is illegal. However, not all chemists are aware of the law, and many do not know about the CWC. There is a need to inform chemists about the treaty and the choices they may have to make in their careers.
To address these issues, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and IUPAC held a conference in Oxford, UK, in the summer of 2005. Two things came out of this conference: first, the decision to form a working group to consider the best methods to promote codes of conduct for chemists and, second, the recognition that there is a need for educational material that will both encourage chemists to consider the implications of their work and inform them about the CWC and the OPCW.
Subsequently, an international working group* was established to develop an educational package that will foster debate on the issues. Four working papers were produced that cover the many uses of chemicals, the CWC, the toxicology of selected chemical warfare agents, and codes of conduct. Approximately six pages long, the papers have been peer reviewed and tested in workshops in the UK, Russia, South Korea, and Italy (see text box below). Workshop participants have included chemistry students, teachers, university professors, diplomats, and specialists in chemical warfare. The four papers have been translated and are available in the working languages of the OPCW—Arabic, Chinese, French, English, Russian, and Spanish.
The working papers are designed for use by university and high school chemistry teachers. They provide enough material for a one-hour lecture, or more. The papers were written with the objectives of promoting chemistry, providing information about the CWC, and encouraging debate. Because the field of chemistry has had negative press in the past, some might argue that encouraging chemists to discuss chemical warfare issues will only worsen its public image. Another argument is that most chemists do not have any interest in producing chemical weapons. However, the fact that chemistry professionals played a central role in the development of chemical weapons and their use in Iraq in the 1980s, together with existing (though declining) stockpiles, means that this issue is of more than just historical interest. The public knows about these issues, and chemists should discuss them. Chemists should be ready to confront this history and ensure that it is not repeated. Finally, these should be conscious choices.
These working papers are meant to foster discussion, encourage chemists to debate the past, and consider the implications of their work today. The papers make it clear that chemical weapons are illegal, and that chemists who choose to make them will be breaking the law. They cover the multiple uses of chemicals, indicating, for example how easy it is to convert a common ingredient in cough linctus into an addictive and highly dangerous street drug. The replacement of a hydroxyl chemical grouping on the side chain of the cough suppressant pseudoephidrine by a hydrogen atom changes the molecule into the drug methamphetamine. The change can be made using a simple chemical reaction. (The paper does not say how to make the change, only pointing out that it can be done.) The paper also discusses the multiple uses of chemicals like thiodiglycol, one of the starting points in the manufacture of mustard gas but a chemical commonly used in many ballpoint inks and fabric dyes. The widely used industrial solvent isopropanol is another example, because it is a key ingredient for making sarin.
After introducing these topics, the working papers encourage debate on a number of issues, including the information about pseudoephidrine and methamphetamine, and drugs in general, that should be made available publicly; the controls that should be in place for chemicals; who is responsible for these controls; the responsibility chemists have regarding access to chemicals; and the identification of other chemicals that create dual-use concerns. Ideally, these discussions should be held in small tutorial groups where there is likely to be a wide range of views, and views that may be strongly held. Some chemists will be familiar with the issues either as individuals or as parents that are concerned about the welfare of their children; these experiences may make for a more engaging debate.
Two additional working papers provide background and basic information on chemical warfare issues. These papers are also intended to promote discussion. The control of drugs and the control of chemical weapons raise very similar issues, which may help students who have less knowledge of chemical weapons.
The final paper in the series is on codes of conduct. Codes of conduct in a specific discipline often provide ethical rules and guidelines, though they may be very general and not enforceable. Sometimes these are educational or advisory codes on workplace ethics or conduct, but they may be more specific enforceable codes that govern accreditation in a profession. These latter codes may be very specific or too inflexible for a rapidly changing profession, and may not address ethical issues in detail. A healthy debate among chemists will determine the type of code that encourages legal and moral behavior on these issues.
information and photographs on this topic may be found at
The four background working papers, available in all six languages,
may also be accessed on the site. Additional papers and case
studies may be added to the site as well. It is our hope that
these papers will be informative, and that they will foster
debate about these issues among chemists and
This completes IUPAC project 2005-029-1-050. For more information, contact Alastair Hay <[email protected]>.
|Alastair Hay presented a version of this article at the OPCW Academic Forum in The Hague, on 18–19 September 2007. That version will appear in the Academic Forum proceedings.
*Members of the IUPAC/OPCW Working Group: E.D. Becker (USA); A. Fratadocchi (Italy); A.W.M. Hay (UK and chairman); P.G. Mahaffy (Canada); R. Mathews (Australia); B. Rappert (UK); R. Robson (CEFIC); O.P. Sharma (India); R.A. Spanevello (Argentina); N.P. Tarasova (Russia); and R. Trapp (formerly of OPCW).
Echoes from the Most Recent Workshop
During the 41st IUPAC World Chemistry Congress in Torino, Italy, IUPAC members organized a workshop on 6 August 2007 titled Multiple Uses of Chemicals and Chemical Weapons, led by Alastair Hay, Natalia Tarasova, and Alberto Fratadocchi. The workshop concluded with a session on the duality of chemistry for both useful purposes and chemical weapons warfare, chaired by R. Pfirter and A. Fratadocchi.
Some 30 conference delegates took part in the workshop. In a 20-minute introductory talk to explain the background of the project, workshop participants were told that the objective of this IUPAC project was to produce teaching material that both emphasizes the importance of chemistry in the global economy, but also points out that chemistry has not always been put to beneficial uses.
Participants formed small workshop groups to debate a range of issues that were raised in the introduction, including how to control the misuse of chemicals and who should exercise these controls—questions that are also contained in the teaching materials prepared by the IUPAC project team. The debates were lively, indicating that the project material will stimulate classroom discussion.
last modified 26 November 2007.
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