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Science Diction Podcast | Chemical Threats

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MRIGlobal’s Science Diction podcast dives in with research scientists to offer insight into chemical threats—their use in conflicts around the world, how they’re evolving, and how we’re keeping up with emerging threats.

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SCIENCE DICTION PODCAST: Episode 8

Transcript – Chemical Threats: Detection, Mitigation, and Decontamination at Home and Abroad

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
Weapons of mass destruction – WMD’s. Chemical agents, chemical weapons, chemical threat agents. They can go by a lot of names, but they all refer to chemicals that can be weaponized as poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquids or solids that have toxic effects on people, whether on the front lines or here at home. 

Cristina Youngren is an expert on such threats performing work on chemical warfare, agent detection and decontamination, efficacy, sample preparation, method development and procedures for analysis in the verification of chemical disarmament. In brief, you want her on your team. 

Today on the show – chemical threats – their use in conflicts around the world, how they’re evolving, and how we’re keeping up with emerging threats. I’m Amy Manning-Boğ and this is Science Diction from MRIGlobal.

Cristina Youngren
As humans, we’ve been coming up with new and exciting ways to harm each other since the dawn of time. But what we recognize currently as the definition of chemical weapons or chemical warfare agents really started in World War One. So the first ones to be used on the battlefield were tear gas, and that was by the French.

And that was not terribly effective. They put that particular form of chemical into grenades and launched it at the Germans. Didn’t have much effect, though. They were hoping for incapacitation. But later, the German army actually utilized what we now know as HD or sulfur mustard to far greater effect. So that would really be the first major chemical weapon that was used. And those compounds are what’s known as a first generation of chemical weapons. And they still are utilized to this day.

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
But I thought after World War One, the Geneva Protocol banned the use of chemical warfare agents.

Cristina Youngren
Well, it banned their use, but not their development or possession of them. Well, you maybe don’t want to be using them in battle. You can still be doing research on them in the background. And unfortunately, as we all know, sulfur mustard was not the last chemical weapon that was developed.

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
So what type of threats are most prevalent today?

Cristina Youngren
Well, it really depends on what or unfortunately, what front of the war or many wars that are going on in the world at any given time you’re looking at. So with chemical warfare agents, there are a few different types. So the first ones, like sulfur mustard, are blister agents. But then you also have nerve agents, which are the G-series, those that include those such as tabun, sarin, which has been used rather notoriously in multiple occasions, soman and cyclosarin.

And those tend to be used as gases and they show up rather frequently because of that. Sarin and soman I can think of, have been used; sarin, especially in Syria more recently and also in the nineties. And there was a civilian attack in Japan. Two attacks in fact. And those both involved G series agents. But it’s probably the nerve agents such as the G-series, and the later V-series like VX. 

And more recently the A-series or Novichok, which represents the greatest threat. Those are nerve agents that were developed in Russia, in the USSR starting in the 1970s. And they really came into prevalence in 2018 because there was an attempted assassination of a Russian national and his British daughter in the town of Salisbury, England. And that was the case in which this chemical warfare agent was sprayed onto a door handle and these people touched it and they became very, very ill.

Thankfully, both survived, but unfortunately, the bottle that the would be assassins used to transport this chemical agent, it was a perfume bottle and they threw it into the trash. And a gentleman was going through the garbage, picked it out, thought it would make a nice gift for his girlfriend. And unfortunately, she died of her exposure, but that was how the world got to know the Novichok.

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
So you mentioned that these are still used in modern conflicts, and it sounded like there was some site specificity here.

Cristina Youngren
Here in the United States, we’re very fortunate. Your odds of being exposed to a chemical weapon such as a nerve agent or a blister agent are extremely low. However, in conflicts such as those in the Syrian Civil War throughout 2012 to 2019, there were over 300 chemical attacks that occurred.

And most of those involved chlorine gas or sarin. But there was also some where people were injured by dangerous chemicals that are not actually considered chemical weapons, such as white phosphorous, but can still do considerable damage. But these threats have not in any way, shape, or form disappeared.

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
Can you speak to the symptoms people may experience if exposed to one of these chemicals?

Cristina Youngren
Sure. I’ll probably use the example of nerve agents because with blister agents it’s pretty obvious they form blisters, right? But with nerve agents, they are acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, which is a long chemical term, which basically means that one of the compounds that’s formed in your body when your muscles tense up. These nerve agents will actually insert themselves into receptors in your body with sarin receptors and prevent other chemicals from reaching them. And because of that, your muscles will actually spasm and can’t relax. And so it is an extremely painful way to well, be injured or incapacitated. And with nerve agents, they can, in fact, cause death. They have lethal effects. 

So when we’re looking at what are the signs and symptoms, there is a handy mnemonic for nerve agents, which is known as SLUDGEM. That stands for Salivation, Locomotion, or teary eyes, Urination, Defecation. Of course, they’re referring to involuntary of those things. Gastrointestinal which is nausea, Emesis or vomiting, and Meiosis or pinpoint pupils. So if you think that there may have been exposed to nerve agent, those are the symptoms to look out for.

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
So what type of monitoring can be performed to help mitigate the impact of these events?

Cristina Youngren
Well, that kind of depends on what your goal is. So one useful technique that we can do is more used for field detection. So with that kind of monitoring, you’re not you know, as an analytical chemist, I want to quantify everything. I want to measure it. We want hard numbers. But if you’re in the field, you don’t really care. All you need to know is, is there agent there or not? So that’s a qualitative analysis. And for that sort of result, you really just need a field detector. So that would be something like ion mobility spectrometer, and those are easily made portable. If you’ve ever gone to the airport and you have to get something swiped, that’s what they’re using is ion mobility spectrometry because it is very rapid in its results. It’ll tell you if something is there or not. 

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
So that’s what first responders use in the field.

Cristina Youngren
And that is probably the first choice, yes. But you can also get a variety of other portable instrumentation, miniature portable instrumentation. There are miniature gas chromatograph mass spectrometry units which are being developed. But the problem is always how sensitive are they? How calibrated can they be? How accurate are they? Because that is really the key. You absolutely do not want to have an instrument that is giving you a false positive.

But equally, you don’t want an instrument that will give a false negative, right? So the accuracy of these instruments is really important. And one of the things that we do at MRIGlobal is actually beta testing instrumentation of that type so that when it does make it to the field, they know that it is reliable because everybody from our warfighters to the civilians and greater society rely on those results for their health and safety.

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
So when a chemical threat has been identified, what about the decontamination of the site afterward?

Cristina Youngren
That is a great question. So the decontamination method in part depends on the chemical which has been utilized. And so there isn’t really one particular decontaminant that works for all chemical warfare agents sadly, as much as we wish there were. Another point is that how we define decontamination can vary, because one way to define it is simply to remove the neat agent from, say, a tank.

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
So that would be just environmental removal.

Cristina Youngren
So when you are trying to decontaminate. One option is to, yes, just remove it from the environmental consideration. If that’s a side of a building or a vehicle that was used by the military or unfortunately, in one case I’m thinking of removing it from the door handle when it was utilized to try to assassinate somebody. That is one type of decontamination, simply the physical removal of a compound from a substrate or environment. But chemical decontamination is when you actually convert that neat agent to a degraded product. So you are chemically converting it in a manner that neutralizes the threat. And that is what most of my research has been focused on.

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
That’s fascinating. 

As chemical threats evolve, the market and defenses must keep up, enabling members of the military and civilian populations to stay safe. 

Cristina Youngren
The problem with chemical weapons is that when you’re responding to them, you’re always somewhat back footed. It is naturally a response, so you can’t really prepare for it. But we do have a lot of methods to identify and verify the presence of these compounds, especially instrumental. Now, I’m an analytical chemist by trade, so I tend to focus on analytical instrumentation methods and those are quite effective.

For example, you can use a system for gas or liquid chromatography combined with mass spectrometry that is highly effective for the identification and quantification of chemical warfare agents. But because those systems tend to be rather large and unwieldy for field use, that happens almost always in laboratories for full sensitivity. And as we said, you don’t want to get this sort of thing wrong. So you want to have that kind of instrumentation available. 

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
Could you tell me more about new equipment, new capabilities?

Cristina Youngren
I think it’s important to point out that not a lot of companies around the world do this kind of research. In the United States, there are only four companies including MRIGlobal, that are contractor owned, contractor operated and do research into chemical warfare agents. And each company has their own specialization. At MRIGlobal, what we specialize in is instrument beta testing. If there’s a new detection method or a new decontamination application instrument, we will be the ones to test that, put it through its paces, see how effective it is on various surfaces and how quickly it works. Every single metric that you can think of to measure efficacy.

We will run that instrument through so that we know and that the end user knows that it is reliable and robust before it makes it out into the field.

Dr. Amy Manning-Boğ
So this sounds like you do work not only on existing but also emerging threats.

Cristina Youngren
Absolutely, because we’re always trying to keep up. And as ingenious as people can be in harming each other, we are equally good at finding ways to mitigate that threat. Our job is to provide mitigation strategies which are effective and reasonable on the scale of threats that are present.

You know, every day at MRI, we know that our partners in the military and law enforcement across the country and throughout the world have to get it right or people get hurt. Our work helps make sure that they can do so, enabling soldiers and civilians to return home safely at night and sleep well.