Welcome to the complex and quite disconcerting world of chemical warfare. For many, the term can sound like something from a dystopian novel or a science fiction movie. 

However, it’s a very real and grave issue that continues to loom over our world today.

At its most basic, chemical warfare involves using chemical substances to cause harm or death, usually in conflict. 


But what does that mean, exactly? Well, imagine a potent substance that just a tiny amount could lead to severe illness or even death. Sounds pretty scary, but that’s the chilling reality of chemical warfare.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. One of the goals of this article is to give you a comprehensive understanding of chemical warfare. But more importantly, to explore the actions taken globally to prevent its use and mitigate its potential effects. 

After all, knowledge is power, and the more we understand these issues, the better equipped we are to address them.

The History of Chemical Warfare

The idea of using chemicals in warfare isn’t exactly new. It has a long, grim history that dates back to ancient times. The ancient Greeks, for instance, were known to use harmful substances like arsenic smoke during sieges.

However, when we say ‘chemical warfare,’ our minds often dart to the more recent past, particularly to the gruesome images of World War I. It was the first large-scale deployment of deadly chlorine and mustard gas. 

But why resort to chemicals? The horrifically simple answer is that these substances are cheap, easy to produce, and deadly. It’s a dark chapter in human history and one that’s important to remember as we continue our quest to prevent the use of such weapons in the future.

The Science Behind Chemical Warfare

Science can be a force for good. But unfortunately, you can also manipulate it for destructive purposes. 

Chemical warfare agents, for instance, are purposefully designed to interfere with essential biological processes, leading to debilitating effects or death.

For instance, nerve gasses like Sarin or VX interfere with the nervous system, causing a range of symptoms from convulsions to respiratory failure. Mustard gas, on the other hand, causes severe skin blisters and lung damage. 

The Current State of Chemical Warfare

Thankfully, the global community has made significant strides in banning chemical weapons. Treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention, ratified by 193 countries, prohibit such weapons’ production, storage, and use. 

However, the threat of chemical warfare still looms, especially with the fear of these weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors or rogue nations. It’s a complex and ever-evolving challenge that requires constant vigilance and international cooperation.

When Chemical Warfare Made Headlines

Chlorine gas: A weapon of WWI

Read Next: Chlorine gas: A weapon of WWI

Now, let’s talk about some specific incidents throughout history. As you read this, you probably are learning about some of these for the first time.

The ‘Chemists’ War’ AKA World War I (1914-1918) 

Picture this. It’s 1915 in Ypres, Belgium, and suddenly, a green-yellow cloud starts drifting toward you. 

That’s what happened when German forces released over 150 tons of deadly chlorine gas, marking one of the first uses of chemical weapons in modern warfare. 

This horrifying event was just one of many during World War I, earning it the nickname ‘The Chemists’ War.’

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1936) 

Fast forward to the mid-1930s, and we find ourselves in Ethiopia, where the Italian military decided to defy the Geneva Protocol, a treaty prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, which they had signed just a decade earlier. 

They dropped mustard gas from the sky, causing terrible suffering among the Ethiopian troops and civilians.

The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)

We’re in the 80s, a decade known for its bright neon colors and pop music. But, it was also when Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq decided to use chemical weapons against Iran, including nerve gasses like sarin and VX. 

The worst incident was the attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, where thousands of innocent people died in what is now known as the Halabja Massacre.

Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack (1995)

This time, we’re not talking about a war but a single horrific event. A doomsday cult in Japan called Aum Shinrikyo unleashed sarin gas in Tokyo’s subway system, leading to the deaths of 13 people and affecting many thousands more. 

This shocking incident showed the world that chemical warfare wasn’t just a tool of war but could also empower non-state actors to create chaos.

Syrian Civil War (2011-present) 

Finally, we arrive at the Syrian Civil War, an ongoing conflict that’s seen numerous accusations of chemical weapons use. The most well-known is the Ghouta attack in 2013, where hundreds died due to alleged sarin gas usage. 

Despite international outcry and agreements to destroy chemical weapon stockpiles, these horrifying attacks reportedly continue.

Protecting Ourselves and Our Future

While the existence of chemical warfare can seem bleak, there’s a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Research and development are needed to create protective gear, detection systems, and medical countermeasures. 


These initiatives, global policies, and treaties give us hope for a future where chemical warfare remains solely in history books.

And by raising awareness about the issue, we can also play our part. After all, the first step to solving any problem is recognizing and understanding it. So, while chemical warfare can be daunting, we should always be open to discussing it.