In this age of terror, there might be nothing more terrifying than the thought of an attack carried out with chemical weapons. We’ve all heard the horrific stories of soldiers being gassed in WWI, and the idea that it could happen in the here and now is blood-chilling.
Perhaps scariest of all is that this isn’t just a possibility. There are chemical attacks happening in the present day, just as there have been across history. And while you’d probably assume you’d hear about a devastating gas attack, we’re willing to bet you’re unfamiliar with more than one of these.
Editor’s note: This post contains pictures that some may find graphic or disturbing.
10. The First Chemical Attack in History
At school, we’re taught that April 22 1915 is the day German forces launched the first gas attack in history. It’s certainly the first time gas was used in modern history, but the story of chemical weapons begins much, much earlier. In 2009, scientists uncovered evidence that the very first attack could have happened as long as 2,000 years ago.
The location was the small Roman garrison Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria. In AD 256, this outpost of the Empire came under siege from the powerful Sassanian Persian empire. During the carnage, the Romans began to dig tunnels under their own walls from which they could leap up and slaughter their enemies. The Persians discovered a group of 20 legionnaires in the process of digging one. Rather than charge in and attack them, they combined sulphur crystals and bitumen to make a toxic gas and pumped it into the tunnel.
The 20 Romans died an incredibly gruesome death, choking on the air around them. It is currently the first-known gas attack in human history. It certainly wouldn’t be the last.
9. The US and Agent Blue
Thousands of years after the Persians pioneered chemical warfare, the USA pioneered accidental chemical warfare. During the Vietnam War, over 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants were dropped on the country. Their purpose was to strip back the jungle and leave the Vietcong with nowhere to hide. Instead they wound up poisoning hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The most-infamous of all the chemicals dumped on Vietnam is Agent Orange, but it certainly wasn’t the nastiest. That ‘honor’ probably goes to Agent Blue. Like its more-famous cousin, Agent Blue contained stuff that was toxic to humans. In this case, that ‘stuff’ was arsenic and an inhibitor to folic acid. Folic acid is essential for pregnant women who want to give birth to normal, healthy babies. Where Agent Blue was sprayed, we’re now seeing the 3rd generation of children born with hideous deformities.
And these deformities truly are hideous. In one case documented in 2003, two girls had skin that was little more than a web of blisters. Their fingers would clump together and fall off. Their hands wore down to stumps. Others suffer extreme facial disfigurement. Although the US denies its chemicals are to blame, many believe there can be no other explanation. Shockingly, the death toll from these deformities could be as high as 500,000.
8. The UK Gasses its Own Soldiers
If you were a British soldier in the post-WWII era, you might just have been unlucky enough to be invited to Porton Down. A specialist research lab, Porton Down, was supposedly concerned with finding a cure for the common cold. In reality, its purpose was much darker. It was here that the UK’s Ministry of Defense gassed its own soldiers with Sarin.
Developed by the Nazis in the dying days of the war, Sarin is one of the nastiest concoctions in the world. Those who are exposed to a lethal dose die in agony, thrashing around as bloody foam spills from their mouths. Between 1945 and 1989, the MoD tested this gas on around 3,400 British soldiers.
Those who took part in the trials thought they were involved in safe medical research for minor ailments. Instead, many of them came almost unbearably close to dying. At least one soldier died as a result of the unlawful human experiments, and hundreds of others were badly sickened. It may not have been an attack in the classic sense, but the Porton Down experiments were as dangerous as any battlefield.
7. The Matsumoto Incident
Although many in the West fear a terrorist chemical attack, only one group has ever managed to pull such a thing off. Meet Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult combining end times prophecy with Christianity and yoga. In 1994, they were one of the richest organizations on Earth. How did they spend this money? By pouring millions into producing WMDs they intended to use to bring about the apocalypse.
Their first stab at Armageddon came in 1994. Aum had just manufactured a weak strain of Sarin and decided to test it out. They drove a van at night through a quiet neighborhood in the town of Matsumoto, spraying Sarin into the air. Although most of it dispersed on the breeze, the test was far from harmless. Seven people died in agony in their sleep, while over 200 were seriously injured (an 8th victim died years later from her injuries).
Perhaps worst of all was the police reaction. Aum weren’t even suspected, and attention fell squarely on local chemist Yoshiyuki Kouno, whose wife was put in a coma by the attack. Police leaked his name to the papers, and Kouno became a public hate figure. It wasn’t until 1995 that his name was finally cleared, for depressing reasons you’re about to find out about…
6. The Tokyo Gas Attack
In early 1995, emboldened by their Matsumoto experiment, Aum pulled off the deadliest act of domestic terrorism modern Japan had ever seen. Five members of the cult boarded three Tokyo subway lines during rush hour carrying bags of Sarin. As the trains progressed into the city, they punctured their bags with pointed umbrella tips, releasing the gas.
The morning commute soon resembled the apocalypse Aum had been looking for. In such a crowded space, the Sarin spread with ease, filling carriages and wafting onto platforms. Thousands were sickened. The whole of Tokyo was paralyzed, with entrances to subways resembling battlefields. Hospitals overflowed and millions of dollars were lost. By the time the emergency was over, 13 people were dead and over 6,000 had been injured.
Incredibly, the attack was a failure. Aum had enough Sarin to kill 4.2million people. Thanks to mistakes made in puncturing the bags, delaying the release, only a fraction of that number died. Some of the attackers even managed to accidentally gas themselves. Nonetheless, the terrorist attack remains one of the most-dangerous on record. In terms of non-fatal casualties, only 9/11 had a higher injury rate.
5. The Idlib Attacks
Not all terrifying gas attacks took place in the past. Some have happened frighteningly close to the present, such as the attack on Idlib in spring of 2015. A Syrian city that fell under rebel control during the war, it was targeted by Assad troops for bombing. On March 16, dozens of crude barrel bombs were pushed from helicopters onto the city below. Each barrel contained canisters filled with poison gas.
In the carnage of the Syrian civil war, it’s impossible to say exactly what that gas was. The best guess is chlorine, a favorite tool of Assad’s forces. Human Rights Watch reported that the gas caused at least 206 casualties across the city. One particularly-severe chlorine cloud choked six people to death outright, including 3 small children.
Horrifying as this is, it’s not a one-off. Only a couple of months later, ISIS used mustard gas on civilians in the town of Marea. Chillingly, it seems chemical weapons are becoming a daily tactic in Syria’s multi-faceted battle for supremacy.
4. Saddam Gasses the Kurds
As far as chemical attacks are concerned, the date March 16 has eerie resonance. 27 years before the Idlib bombing, the Kurdish town of Halabja experienced the worst gas attack in recorded history. At 11am, 20 Iraqi planes dropped dozens of canisters onto every major part of the city. The resulting cloud of mustard gas killed more people than 9/11.
At its lowest end, the Halabja attack claimed 3,200 lives. At its highest estimate, it may have claimed more than 5,000. Around 75 percent of the victims were women and children and all died in unimaginable agony. Mustard gas causes the skin to break out in gigantic blisters. It blisters the eyeballs, the inside of the face, the inside of the lungs. Alongside the thousands of dead, another 10,000 Kurds were seriously injured.
The attack was carried out because the area’s Kurds were seeking their own state, and Saddam didn’t want to let them have it. The US initially blamed the Iranians, who Saddam was then at war with. In a gruesome twist, it later turned out the CIA had helped Saddam deploy his chemical weapons in the hopes of scoring a clandestine victory against Iran.
3. The Ghouta Attack
In the years since 1988, no gas attack has killed anywhere near as many people as that on Halabja. One attack did, however, come close. In August 2013, Assad’s forces fired rockets into a rebel-held neighborhood in Damascus. As civilians hid away from the war in their homes, a strange gas began to seep through the streets. Like Aum in the 1990s, Assad had turned to Sarin to do his dirty work. The results were tragic.
Around 1,000 people – nearly all of them women and children – died in agony. Over 3,000 more reported to hospitals suffering the symptoms of Sarin poisoning. Kids choked to death in the streets. Mothers asphyxiated with their babies clutched in their arms. It was likely the single worst massacre committed with Sarin in history (although the Nazis developed Sarin, they largely used Zyklon-B in the Holocaust).
The international outrage over the attack was so great that Assad was forced to destroy his stockpiles of the gas. However, as we’ve already seen, even this wasn’t enough to stop chemical attacks in Syria. Both the regime and groups like ISIS simply switched to other gasses, and continued killing as if nothing had happened.
2. The Bhopal Chemical Disaster
The Bhopal Tragedy is unique on our list in that it wasn’t an attack so much as an accident. However, it was by far and away the worst chemical accident in history. On the night of December 2, 1984, a screw-up at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in the Indian town of Bhopal led to 30 tons of methyl isocyanate being released into the air. The resulting toxic cloud settled over the nearby shanty towns. By sunrise, 600,000 people had been injured.
Methyl isocyanate is deeply unpleasant stuff. It causes the eyes to burn, intense feelings of nausea and, in the right circumstances, death. It also hugs close to the ground, meaning those sleeping on the floors of their shacks got a concentrated dose. At the time, it was thought around 3,800 had been killed – as many as the lower estimates of the Halabja Massacre. As the years went by, though, more and more people died from the chemical cloud’s long-term effects. According to the government of India, the death toll today is around 15,000.
As for Union Carbide, the company behind the tragedy, they agreed to pay out a pittance in compensation. In 2001, they were taken over by Dow Chemical and now refuse to pay another penny. Many Bhopal victims are still unable to afford treatment for their injuries.
1. Saddam Gasses the Iranians
Ask most people to name history’s worst gas campaign, and they’ll probably tell you about WWI. Around 90,000 people died on Europe’s battlefields due to inhaling mustard and chlorine gas, with over a million wounded. Shockingly, though, this might not be the deadliest use of chemical weapons on record. That honor could instead go to Saddam Hussein’s chemical campaign against Iran during the 1980s.
An 8-year war instigated by Iraq, the conflict saw numerous war crimes on both sides. Perhaps the worst of all were Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. Iranian civilians and military alike were bombed with cocktails of mustard gas and Sarin, killing tens of thousands of people. At the time, around 50,000 gas causalities were recorded – a shocking number, but still far short of the WWI total. At least, that used to be the case. As the years tick by, more and more Iranians who inhaled only trace amounts during the war are starting to sicken and die from complications. It turns out mustard gas can be deadly even decades after inhalation. With the death toll still climbing, it’s now thought the number of casualties might rise to over 90,000 within the next decade. If that happens, the Iran-Iraq War will become the deadliest chemical weapons campaign in history… as well as one that many people have still never heard of.