THE TRUTH ABOUT Poison Gas (Nov, 1937)

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FRANCE sells gas masks to its citizens on a five-year installment plan. Germany reveals that it has secretly been manufacturing a new type of gas mask for noncombatants, by the million. Startled Britons learn that the world’s first factory for civilian masks, at Blackburn, England, has passed its 9,000,000 mark and is turning out 100,000 a day to reach its quota of a gas mask for every man, woman, and child in the British Isles.

Few doubt that poison gas will play a major role in the dreaded “next world war.” What will hap- pen then? Will whole cities, teeming populations, be wiped out in an instant by noxious fumes? Are nations secretly guarding poison gases more horrible than we have ever known ? At the outbreak of a world war, will chemists leap to their test tubes and create terrible new poisons to order?

How far such nightmare stories depart from fact has just been revealed by Lieut. Col. A. M. Prentiss of the U. S. Chemical Warfare Service, whose authoritative new book, “Chemicals in War,” debunks many of the popular misconceptions about poison gas.

From time to time we hear rumors of a “supergas,” a few hundred pounds of which, dropped from the air, would wipe out the entire population of a city like New York. This country or that is supposed to have discovered it, and to be keeping it in hiding for the next war. Military chemists of a good many nations would like to know of such a gas. The plain fact is that it doesn’t exist—except in the imagination of sensational writers.

While two or three new gases have been developed since the World War, none that we know about is startlingly more dangerous than the chemicals used in that conflict. And the mathematical odds are all against the possibility that any nation has secretly discovered such a gas, or will do so in the immediate future.

During the World War, chemists tested more than 3,000 likely chemical compounds and eliminated all but thirty-eight as possible war gases. When these were tried out in battle, not more than half a dozen proved useful for military purposes.

There is a simple reason why additional deadly or disabling war gases are so rare and hard to find. To be a real menace on the battlefield, a gas must be more than poisonous. One of the least effective gases in the World War, for example, was the deadly vapor of hydrocyanic acid. It is one of the most virulent poisons known to man and often is used for the execution of criminals. One or two full breaths cause almost instant death. Fortunately, it has one defect as a war gas. Being lighter than air, it rises harmlessly instead of clinging to the ground and rolling into trenches, dugouts, and city streets.

To be dangerous in wartime use, poison gas must be heavier than air. Raw materials to make it must be readily available. It must be simple to manufacture. It must not spoil in storage. If it is a true gas, it must be capable of being liquefied by moderate pressure in order to be loaded into shells and bombs in concentrated form. If it is a liquid, as some war “gases” are, it must be volatile enough to release clouds of vapor at ordinary temperatures. At least a dozen other requirements could be listed. Discovering a poison gas that combines all these properties is about as easy as finding a left-handed man with blue eyes and a red beard who weighs between 180 and 185 pounds, speaks seven languages, and plays the piccolo!

However, where chemists have been unsuccessful in their search for a super-gas, the mechanicians of the world’s armies have devised new and more horrible ways of using the known poisons.

Aerial gas raids are the latest terror in gas warfare. No World War planes carried gas. Today, aircraft equipped to use it in either of two ways are a part of every important air force. Bombs loaded with chemicals now may be dropped upon a target, exploding and scattering their contents. From tanks beneath the wings, liquid gases may also be sprayed into the air like insecticides, to settle slowly to the ground as a poisonous mist. Italian aviators tried out both methods with deadly effect in their Ethiopian campaign. How much harm they would do against troops of a first-class military power, well trained in gas defense, remains to be seen. Uppermost in the average person’s mind, however, is the question of what would happen if they should be unleashed upon the millions of noncombatants of a great city such as New York or London.

But will they be? It has been suggested that certain nations have been deliberately inspiring propaganda exaggerating the likelihood and horrors of aerial gas raids on city dwellers, in order to frighten and bluff other countries and get what they want without actually going to war. There are excellent military reasons, aside from any humanitarian considerations, why a great city is one of the least likely of targets for an aerial gas attack.

First of all, tall buildings make it unsafe for aircraft to fly at an altitude as low as 300 feet, as they must do to spray liquid gases. Planes could drop gas-filled bombs, but many would strike rooftops and release their contents harmlessly. Since war gas clings to the ground, poison-gas bombs are not dangerous unless they reach the streets; and only one bomb out of two would do so, on the average. That may not seem very reassuring, until you realize that the concentration or quantity of poison gas in the air may make all the difference between its being (Continued on page 131) deadly and its being harmless, just as carbon monoxide gas from automobile exhausts is deadly in a closed garage and harmless in the street. Fortunately, asphyxiating or “killing” gases like phosgene must be present in high concentration to become any great hazard, and are therefore not to be feared in air raids on cities.

Mustard gas and geranium-scented lewisite, a newer blistering gas, might be dropped in bombs and would be decidedly unpleasant to encounter. Neither is usually fatal, however, and people caught on a city street when a gas-raid alarm was sounded could find instant shelter in tall buildings and would be safe from these gases a few stories above the street with windows closed. After a raid, special squads in masks and protective clothing would block off the gassed areas with danger signs, closing them to traffic, and set about “decontaminating” them by hosing the poison down the sewers or destroying it. with scrub brushes and chloride of lime.

ABOUT the greatest harm to be feared from an aerial gas raid on a city, therefore, would be the terrorizing of the more excitable inhabitants. For this purpose, army tacticians probably will use the relatively harmless tear and sneeze gases, for they do their work at lower concentrations and in smaller quantities than other war gas.

Civilian preparedness has gone a long way toward removing the horrors of gas attacks on noncombatants. Mimic airraid drills, the building of gas-tight refuges, and the distribution of masks have acquainted the man in the street with the various methods of gas defense. In Great Britain, “gas schools” and educational exhibits are teaching city dwellers how to use one room of a house as a gasproof shelter. In case of an air raid, the entire family can move into it and seal it air-tight with newspapers and blankets, using gas masks only if necessary as a second line of defense.

Evidently, we do not need to worry much about gas attacks at home. As for soldiers on the battlefield—well, that is another story.

USING every known gas against enemy troops, air raiders may completely revise the tactics of warfare. Troops will have to be moved to the front by motor truck instead of by train; fixed terminals offer targets too promising for aerial gas attacks. If planes discover and attack the motorized columns, the men will not know whether to scatter for safety from explosive bombs or to stay in their vehicles for cover from gas bombs or spray.

Other new gas weapons will add to the soldier’s woes. Chemical land mines will be exploded, and areas sprinkled with liquid poison from motorized tank wagons, to block an advance. The latest compressed-gas cylinders for releasing wind-borne clouds of poison gas from front-line trenches have “silencer nozzles,” eliminating the high-pitched hissing noise of world-war cylinders that gave warning five to twenty seconds before the gas arrived.

That is the picture of up-to-date gas warfare, according to those who are in the know.

Horrible? Humane? Much depends upon the point of view.

There is nothing particularly humane about blowing men to pieces with high explosives and riddling them with bullets and bayonets, leaving them to expire in agony or to survive as mutilated physical wrecks. In contrast, chemical-warfare men maintain, gas causes less suffering, and leaves a man whole.

Contrary to popular belief, gas seldom causes permanent injuries or after effects. One common idea is that gas predisposes its victims to tuberculosis, but a medical investigator tracking down this belief actually found half again as many cases of tuberculosis among soldiers who had not been exposed to gas as among soldiers who had been gassed!

AS FOR the deadliness of gas compared to other means of waging war, World War figures show that only two percent of the total gas casualties were fatal, while more than twenty-five percent of casualties from all other causes resulted in death. In other words, a soldier incapacitated by gas had more than twelve times as much chance of escaping with his life as a soldier wounded by other weapons.

However effective it may prove on the battlefield, for the civilian at home in a city far behind the lines the menace of gas appears to be much less than sensational writers would have us believe. Even if this weapon should be used extensively in another war, its natural limitations and the improved defensive methods probably would do much to rob it of its terrors.

  1. andrew fortune says: April 13, 20088:53 am

    hmmm, so they hadnt hear of Sarin then?
    seems that these ‘super gas rumours’ were true.

  2. Marla says: October 11, 20085:38 pm

    Here in Fresno, CA is a group who claim to be using a technique, “gassing through vents” of homes and motels in order to rob and violate. They laugh that their victims have no way to prove anything. The evidence indicates this is 100% true.

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