Knockout gas: Chemical weapons in disguise?
By Michael Brooks AMONG the medical profession, anaesthetists have something of a reputation for being boring. While surgeons do the heroics, it’s anaesthetists who put you to sleep, keep you ticking over and then wake you up again when the drama is over. It seems hard to believe then that a group of them stand accused of derailing a 79-year-old global arms control treaty. The chemical weapons convention is under threat from attempts to turn anaesthetic agents into “non-lethal” chemical weapons, says the treaty watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Drugs such as these, designed to knock people out quickly and without doing lasting harm, are touted by some as a humane way of dealing with terrorists or hostage-takers, for example. Opponents say they are inherently dangerous, however – a view that seems to be supported by their track record. Whether the current research into such agents breaches the convention seems to fall into a legal grey area. But allowing it to continue unchecked would be a slippery slope to the treaty’s downfall, the OPCW says in a soon to be published internal report seen by New Scientist. “One of the great achievements in arms control is the banning of poisons and germs,” says Mark Wheelis of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) working group on the control of chemical and biological weapons. “I would hate to see those gains reversed,