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In recent years, international incidents involving chemical weapons have made headlines. Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was murdered in 2017 with VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. In 2018, former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in the United Kingdom. In Mideast conflicts, the use of chlorine, sulfur mustard, and sarin as weapons in the Syrian Civil War has been confirmed by the United Nations. Such incidents illustrate the need for outstanding forensic expertise and capabilities in determining what chemical was involved; what group, individual, or nation was responsible; where it came from; and how it was manufactured.
As described in the feature article titled "The Worldwide Effort to Ban Chemical Weapons," Lawrence Livermore’s Forensic Science Center (FSC) provides valuable support to the worldwide effort to eliminate chemical weapons through the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and its Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Founded in 1991, the FSC drives research and development as well as real-world sample analysis activities. The center supplies decades of forensic analytical expertise and state of-the-art instrumentation to counter terrorism, aid domestic and international law enforcement agencies, and verify compliance with international treaties, including CWC.
The urgent need for an international agreement banning the use of chemical weapons was illustrated during the Iran–Iraq war (1980–1988) when nerve agents and mustard gas employed by Iraqi forces caused tens of thousands of casualties. CWC entered into force in 1997, outlawing the development, production, acquisition, storage, and use of chemical weapons, which include choking, blister, blood, and nerve agents, as well as other toxic chemicals. One hundred ninety-three nations have ratified the treaty, and 98 percent of chemical weapon stockpiles—more than 71,000 metric tons—have been verifiably destroyed. This tremendous progress has been achieved through inspections of both government and commercial facilities and a worldwide network of analytical laboratories certified by OPCW for identifying chemical warfare agents contained in virtually every kind of evidence.
Since becoming an OPCW-certified laboratory for environmental samples in 2003, the FSC has made important contributions with extremely sensitive analytical techniques and decision-making processes required for quick and effective response to any incident involving toxic chemicals. In 2017, the FSC gained an additional OPCW certification for analyzing blood and urine, and the center’s researchers continue to develop techniques for identifying chemical warfare agents in biomedical samples. The FSC is one of only 21 environmental laboratories and 18 biomedical laboratories certified by OPCW.
Another critical task for the FSC is training personnel in at-risk nations on response strategies for incidents involving toxic chemicals, whether the result of a chemical weapon or an industrial accident—a derailed train car transporting chemicals, for example. As described in the article, the training combines lectures, demonstrations, and practical exercises that cover a broad range of topics. Advanced training at specialized OPCW facilities includes simulated chemical incidents with participants wearing protective clothing and using detection equipment.Strengthening the available technical capabilities for detecting and characterizing activities indicative of chemical weapons production and use are critical to national and global security.
At Lawrence Livermore, we also apply advances in science and technology to counter nuclear proliferation and biological threats to human health. Threats to the nation are very real and can come as a surprise, as the COVID-19 pandemic makes clear. Our scientists and engineers are engaged in many responsive efforts to accelerate scientific discovery of the virus, develop improved detection technologies, and advance medical countermeasures as part of the national effort. (Visit llnl.gov/coronavirus for more information.)