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Emerging and Re-emerging Chemical Threats


Chemical Threats on the Battlefield and Home Front

The first chemical weapons were deployed on the battlefields of World War I from 1914-1918. A variety of blistering agents, choking agents, and other chemicals had devasting impacts on troops on both sides of the line. By the end of the war, they had caused an estimated 1.3 million casualties and nearly 100,000 fatalities. Author John McCrae, whose poem “In Flanders Fields” was inspired by his war experience, was a victim of a chemical warfare attack near Ypres, Belgium. The chemical used in that attack was sulfur mustard, also known as mustard gas. 

More than 100 years later, our work with client Argentum Medical achieved a milestone in our long-standing efforts to defend the country against potential use of chemical weapons: the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance of a product designed for use with certain injuries caused by exposure to sulfur mustard.

Through this work, we supported the development of comprehensive treatment regimens and models to evaluate the efficacy of antimicrobial burn contact dressings as advanced treatments for wounds caused specifically by this chemical weapon. 

Unfortunately, mustard gas is only one of many chemicals that pose a threat. Today, any number of emerging or re-emerging chemical threats are present, posing not only a potential threat on the battlefield, but also on the home front.  

Our Work with Emerging and Re-emerging Chemical Threats

While few of these threats are truly emerging, technology makes them easier to produce or acquire, so they have re-emerged as threats. That makes addressing them an important part of our mission, with the goal of creating solutions for a safer, healthier, more sustainable world.

To support our research, we acquire controlled substances through a few different means, as they can be shipped to us by a client or purchased from various approved vendors. We acquire chemical weapon agents (CWAs or chemical warfare agents) from the U.S. Army or follow regulations to synthesize them ourselves. These include narcotic pharmaceuticals, a variety of toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) and toxic industrial materials (TIMs), and chemical agents. 

For additional background on the cutting edge systems we evaluate for detection of these and other materials, and research we do to help safeguard our military and first responders against chemical threats, check out our podcast conversation with Dr. Corrie Carnes and Evan Durnal on the Detection of Chemical, Biological, and Explosive Threats.

Narcotic Pharmaceuticals 

There is a broad range of pharmaceuticals that include narcotics such as ketamine, medetomidine, fentanyl and other opioids, and others. Fentanyl specifically is responsible for approximately 200 overdose deaths in the United States each day and is currently the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18-45. 

Working with each of these drugs, we develop laboratory methods for analysis, add to on-board libraries, and develop devices to collect and subsequently analyze for various pharmaceuticals. As part of our CBRNE Tech Index work to assess detection sampling devices, MRIGlobal created a baseline market survey of portable detection equipment capable of identifying fentanyl, other opiates, and related compounds. This information can be useful for first responders in selecting the best detection equipment for their use in the field. In conversation with industry partners, we took a deep dive into this issue in a series of four podcasts called “Let’s Talk Fentanyl,” summarizing its impact and recommending on-site best practices for first responders. 

Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs) and Toxic Industrial Materials (TIMs)

Per OSHA, “Toxic industrial chemicals are industrial chemicals that are manufactured, stored, transported, and used throughout the world. Toxic industrial chemicals can be in the gas, liquid, or solid state. They can be chemical hazards (e.g., carcinogens, reproductive hazards, corrosives, or agents that affect the lungs or blood) or physical hazards (e.g., flammable, combustible, explosive, or reactive).” Similarly, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines toxic industrial materials as “chemicals other than chemical warfare agents that have harmful effects on humans.” Because both TICs and TIMs can be highly toxic and produced in large quantities, they are considered a threat that could be used by terrorists.

To effectively decontaminate TICs and TIMs, we helped test a soap that is safe for use on surfaces and human skin. Its formulation may provide a decontamination solution for use on a variety of common hazardous threat materials and on surfaces that include human skin. 

Nerve Agents

Russian for “newcomer,” Novichoks were developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s-80s as a group of nerve agents that are similar to the more well-known VX and sarin gas, but much more lethal. These agents can be delivered as a liquid, fine powder, or a gas, with precursors available that can be mixed to make them stable and useable on demand.   

Our work with Novichoks is focused on testing decontamination materials against them and also testing colorimetric, analytical, and portable detection technologies. This work supports creation of library entries and evaluation of cross-sensitivities. Most field equipment requires on-board libraries or databases of hazardous materials. These databases are what the equipment uses to confirm or reject the identification of an unknown material. Creating high-quality on-board libraries is crucial to ensuring the best technologies work properly when needed. 

We also work with organophosphorus (OP) nerve agents, which per “Organophosphorus Nerve Agents: Types, Toxicity, and Treatments,” are organic chemicals derived from phosphoric acids and its derivatives and contain at least one carbon-phosphorus bond. Though primarily used in industrial and environmental applications, some are commonly known as CWAs that can be used during war or in terrorist activities. 

Initially developed in Germany in the 1930s as pesticides and as chemical warfare agents, CWAs like sarin and VX have been used for decades in places like Afghanistan, Japan, Iraq, and elsewhere. They continue to represent a threat to civilians, first responders, and warfighters alike, who may be exposed when entering contaminated areas and working with potentially contaminated individuals. 

OP compounds work by disrupting the body’s ability to regulate its peripheral and central nervous systems. The body uses a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine to communicate from nerve to nerve and from nerve to muscle. When acetylcholine binds to the receiving nerve or muscle, it sends a signal for that nerve or muscle to do its job — to turn “on,” so to speak. Then, an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase breaks down acetylcholine, turning the nerve or muscle “off” until it receives a new signal.

However, when an OP nerve agent attaches to an acetylcholinesterase enzyme, the enzyme becomes inhibited and is unable to break down acetylcholine. The resulting buildup of acetylcholine causes hyperactivity in parts of the body and can have severe consequences.

Excessive accumulation of acetylcholine can cause cramps, increased salivation, muscular weakness and twitches, paralysis, diarrhea, and blurry vision. Inhalation exposure to an OP nerve agent can cause the diaphragm to lock up and the victim to suffocate. If the toxin gets into the blood and heart, the heart can beat erratically, causing a heart attack. If it reaches the brain, it can cause seizures and a coma. Existing protection against such exposure – which was first approved in the 1980s – requires frequent dosing and although it may save the patient’s life, has been found to make symptoms worse. 


Contact MRIGlobal to further understand our work in defense against chemical and biological threats. We work with our clients to test and evaluate current methods to detect, prevent, decontaminate, protect, and destroy these materials.

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