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Use of lethal or incapacitating chemical weapons in war, and the methods of combating such agents. Chemical weapons include choking agents such as the chlorine and phosgene gas employed first by the Germans and later by the Allies in World War I; blood agents such as hydrogen cyanide or cyanogen gas, which block red blood cells from taking up oxygen; blister agents such as sulfur gas and Lewisite, also dispensed as a gas, which burn and blister the skin; and nerve agents such as Tabun, Sarin, Soman, and VX, which block the transmission of nerve impulses to the muscles, heart, and diaphragm. The horrific casualties suffered in World War I led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which made it illegal to employ chemical weapons but did not ban their production. Chemical weapons were used a number of times afterward, most notably by Italy in Ethiopia (1935–36), by Japan in China (1938–42), by Egypt in Yemen (1966–67), and by Iran and Iraq against each other (1984–88). During the Cold War the Soviet Union and U.S. built up enormous chemical arsenals; these were dismantled under the terms of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits all development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, or transfer of such weapons. Not all countries have signed the convention, and many are suspected of pursuing clandestine chemical programs. Many military forces have adopted various defensive measures, including chemical sensors, protective garments and gas masks, decontaminants, and injectable antidotes, and some have reserved the option of retaliating in kind to any chemical attack. In 1995 a religious cult killed 12 civilians and injured thousands more with Sarin gas in Tokyo; this pointed out the power of chemical agents as weapons of terror as well as the difficulty of protecting civilian populations. See alsobiological warfare.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on chemical warfare, visit Britannica.com.