Chemical attacks demand enhanced analytical forensics

Recent chemical weapons violations across the globe have experts calling for increased forensics capabilities to track their sources.

The UK-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) determined the compound used in the recent assassination attempt of a former Russian spy belonged to a class of nerve agents known as Novichoks – deadly toxins produced by the Soviets during the Cold War.

On March 15th, Russia denied ever developing the nerve agent at the UN Security Council and claimed that the only evidence of the source was a single chemical analysis performed by OPCW. Exceptional purity of the toxin led the OPCW team to believe that only a highly skilled and well-equipped laboratory could synthesise it.

Chemical experts in California say forensic methods could develop chemical signatures of the toxins used in the recent UK and Syrian chemical attacks. Such signatures could be used to determine how toxins were produced, where the materials originated, and the quality of the syntheses.

The OPCW is deploying a fact-finding mission to investigate the Syrian chemical attack this month, and reviews by the organisation highlight the need for a chemical weapons signature database.

Read more: Nature / The Guardian / OPCW

Image: Danielle Tunstall / CC0-1.0 – Gas mask graffiti

This story is taken from the 20 April 2018 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.