Destroying Chemical Weapons With Household Materials

Sarin has met its greatest match: Water + Bleach.

The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) onboard the M/V Cape Ray stands in the cargo bay of the ship January 2, 2014, in Portsmouth, Virginia.
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Brian Resnick
Jan. 8, 2014, midnight

The first of Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons have left the coun­try, and are en route to their de­struc­tion. Piled aboard a Dan­ish ship, they’re headed to Italy, where they will meet a U.S. Navy ship out­fit­ted with equip­ment to des­troy the weapons. How much of the Syr­i­an stock­pile has been re­moved re­mains un­known.

But what’s clear is this: Des­troy­ing chem­ic­al weapons is really simple. (In terms of the chem­istry re­quired — not lo­gist­ics. The weapons trans­port­ers, after all, are mov­ing highly deadly agents through a war-torn coun­try.)

The most com­mon­place of chem­ic­als, wa­ter, can des­troy the weapons, in what is called a hy­dro­lys­is re­ac­tion. If you took high-school chem­istry, you have con­duc­ted a hy­dro­lys­is re­ac­tion (come on, you re­mem­ber, right?). Hy­dro­lys­is works like this: When wa­ter — either acid­ic or ba­sic — is mixed with cer­tain chem­ic­als, the wa­ter will act as a knife, sli­cing those chem­ic­al in half. In the case of chem­ic­al weapons such as sar­in gas and VX, they are broken down in­to sim­pler units without such vi­ol­ently tox­ic ef­fects.

As Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Sara Sorch­er re­por­ted in Decem­ber, the U.S. mil­it­ary has a mo­bile hy­dro­lyz­er that it will em­ploy on the ship. This is what it looks like.

(US Army) JIM WATSON/ GETTY / AFP

The mil­it­ary boasts that this ma­chine is 99.9 per­cent ef­fect­ive at neut­ral­iz­ing chem­ic­al weapons.

But what’s amaz­ing is that the chem­ic­als it uses to prime the wa­ter for chem­ic­al de­struc­tion are ones you can find at home.

“Wa­ter, so­di­um hy­drox­ide (Na­OH) [also known as lye] and so­di­um hy­po­chlor­ite (Na­O­Cl) [bleach] are re­quired for neut­ral­iz­a­tion of chem­ic­al war­fare ma­ter­i­al and de­con­tam­in­a­tion of sys­tem com­pon­ents,” the Army’s press ma­ter­i­als state. The waste that res­ults, which still might con­tain some nasty chem­ic­als, can then be stored for later dis­pos­al. Of­fi­cials told Sorch­er in Decem­ber that the waste will not be dumped in­to the ocean.

The sim­pli­city of the sys­tem doesn’t mean you should try this at home. Much of the en­gin­eer­ing com­plex­ity in the hy­dro­lyz­er serves to pro­tect the tech­ni­cians who use it from the un­treated chem­ic­als.

(CDC) CDC

(CDC)The United States is good at des­troy­ing chem­ic­al weapons. We, after all, also signed the Geneva chem­ic­al-weapons treaty and des­troyed our own stock­pile. This flow­chart from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion sum­mar­izes the pro­cess well. Click to make it big­ger.

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