Posted On November 3, 2014 by Print This Post

It’s Chemistry, Baby! A Short Primer on Chemical Weapons for Authors by Adam Firestone


If you thought Halloween was scary, just read what Adam Firestone has to say about chemical weapons. Here’s a primer for writers you won’t find anywhere but at Romance University!

It’s Chemistry, Baby! 

ChemWeaponSymbol (1)


There are very few things that an author can use to grab a reader’s imagination more effectively than chemical weapons.  One breath, a drop of a viscous, oily liquid on exposed skin and a character is consigned to a horrible, painful death.

Think about it – choking, blinded, unable to control your muscles or have your nerves – every one of which is on fire – respond to your will; it’s the quintessence of terrifying.  The fear these weapons engender is visceral, almost animal in nature.  If only for that reason they are a useful plot tool.  Add in the rapid impact that they can have over a large, distributed geographic area, and the ability to have your hero or heroine “save the world” and you have a built-in recipe for some truly thrilling twists.

That being said, lethal agents are only part of the chemical pantheon.  This post will provide a primer on the basic classes of chemical weapons and their impacts.

Harassing Agents

Harassing agents are not intended to kill or injure but rather to convince a target demographic to modify objectionable behavior. Often referred to as Riot Control Agents (RCAs), they are used by civilian police forces against criminals and rioters, or by the military for training purposes.  They can also be used to force people out of concealed or covered positions so that they can be engaged with conventional weapons or to prevent people from occupying contaminated terrain or operating weapons. They are sensory irritants whose effects disappear minutes after removal. Casualty effects are neither anticipated to exceed 24 hours nor require medical attention.  Harassing agents include:

  1. Tear, or lachrymatory agents

These sensory irritants produce immediate painto the eyes and irritate mucous membranes.  Tear agents include: a-Chlorotoluene, Benzyl bromide, Bromoacetone (BA), Bromobenzylcyanide (CA), Bromomethyl ethyl ketone, Capsaicin (OC), Chloracetophenone (MACE; CN), Chloromethyl chloroformate, Dibenzoxazepine (CR), Ethyl iodoacetate, Ortho-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (Super tear gas; CS), Trichloromethyl chloroformate and Xylyl bromide


  1. Vomiting agents

These are also called sternators or nose irritants. They irritate the mucous membranes to produce congestion, coughing, sneezing, and eventually nausea.  Examples include:  Adamsite (DM), Diphenylchloroarsine (DA) and Diphenylcyanoarsine (DC)


  1. Malodorants

Malodorants are compounds with a very strong and unpleasant smell, which produce powerfully aversive effects without the toxic effects of tear agents or vomiting agents. Some countries (e.g., Israel and the USA) have developed malodorant weapons in the belief that they fall outside the accepted definition of riot control agents, and therefore represent a loophole in the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Incapacitating Agents

These substances produce debilitating effects with a relatively low probability of permanent injury or death. The effects typically last more than 24 hours, and though medical evacuation and isolation is recommended, it is not required for complete recovery. Together with harassing agents, these are called nonlethal agents. That being said, fatalities may reach as high as 5% with their use.  Incapacitating agents include:

  1. Psychological Agents

These produce casualty effects through mental disturbances such as delirium or hallucination, and include:  3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ), Phencyclidine (SN), Lysergic acid diethylamide (K, or LSD)


  1. Other Incapacitating Agents

These operate more through interactions outside the central nervous system, and include tranquilizers such as KOLOKOL-1.


Lethal Agents

These intent of these substances is to produce chemical casualties without regard to long-term consequences or loss of life. They cause injuries that require medical treatment.  Lethal agents include:


  1. Blister agents

A blister agent, or vesicant, causes severe skin, eye and mucosal pain and irritation. They are named for their ability to cause severe chemical burns, resulting in painful water blisters on the bodies of those affected.   Vesicants include:  Nitrogen and sulfur mustards, arsenicals, ethyldichloroarsine (ED), methyldichloroarsine (MD), phenyldichloroarsine (PD) and 2-Chlorovinyldichloroarsine (Lewisite; L).

Mustard_gas_burns (1)

Exposure to a weaponized blister agent can cause a number of life-threatening symptoms, including:


  • Severe skin, eye and mucosal pain and irritation
  • Skin erythema with large fluid blisters that heal slowly and may become infected
  • Tearing, conjunctivitis, corneal damage
  • Mild respiratory distress to marked airway damage


All blister agents currently known are heavier than air, and are readily absorbed through the eyes, lungs, and skin. Effects of the two mustard agents are typically delayed: exposure to vapors becomes evident in 4 to 6 hours, and skin exposure in 2 to 48 hours.


Related to vesicants are urticants.  These are substances that produce a painful weal on the skin. Sometimes termed skin necrotizers, these are known as the most painful substances produced.   One example is phosgene oxime (CX).


  1. Blood agents

A blood agent is a toxic chemical that affects the body by being absorbed into the blood.  They are fast-acting, lethal poisons that typically manifest at room temperature as volatile colorless gases with a faint odor, and are either cyanide- or arsenic-based. As chemical weapons, blood agents are typically dispersed as aerosols and take effect through inhalation.


The blood of people killed by blood agents is typically bright red, because the agents inhibit the use of oxygen by the body’s cells.  Cyanide poisoning can be detected by the presence of thiocyanate or cyanide in the blood, a smell of bitter almonds, or respiratory tract inflammations and congestions in the case of cyanogen chloride poisoning. There is no specific test for arsine poisoning, but it may leave a garlic smell on the victim’s breath.


At sufficient concentrations, blood agents can quickly saturate the blood and cause death in a matter of minutes or seconds.  They cause powerful gasping for breath, violent convulsions and a painful death that can take several minutes. The immediate cause of death is usually respiratory failure.  These chemicals work at the cellular level by preventing the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the blood and the body’s cells. This causes the cells to suffocate from lack of oxygen.


Examples of blood agents include: Cyanogen chloride (CK), hydrogen cyanide (AC) and arsine (SA).


  1. Choking Agents

Choking agents are designed to impede the ability to breathe. They cause a build-up of fluids in the lungs which then leads to suffocation. Exposure to the eyes and skin tend to be corrosive, causing blurred vision and severe deep burns. Inhalation of these agents cause burning of the throat, coughing, vomiting, headache, pain in chest, tightness in chest, and respiratory and circulatory failure.


Phosgene is the most dangerous commonly used pulmonary agent. It is a colorless gas under ordinary conditions. It has a density 3.4 times greater than that of air, allowing it to remain low in the air for long periods of times. Phosgene leads to massive pulmonary edema, which reaches maximum symptoms in 12 hours after exposure, followed by death within 24–48 hours.


Examples of pulmonary agents include chlorine gas, chloropicrin (PS), diphosgene (DP), phosgene (CG), disulfur decafluoride, perfluoroisobutene,  acrolein and diphenylcyanoarsine.


  1. Nerve Agents

Nerve agents disrupt the chemical communications pathways through the nervous system. One example of such disruption (used by the G, GV, and V series of chemicals) is the blocking of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that normally destroys and stops the activity of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. Poisoning by these nerve agents leads to an accumulation of acetylcholine at the nerve axon, producing a perpetual excited state in the nerve (e.g. constant muscle contraction). The eventual exhaustion of muscles leads to respiratory failure and death.

VG-3D-balls (1)

A separate class of nerve agents are related to Tetrodotoxin (TTX), are potent neurotoxins with no known antidote. Tetrodotoxin blocks action potentials in nerves by binding to the voltage-gated, fast sodium channels in nerve cell membranes, essentially preventing any affected nerve cells from firing by blocking the channels used in the process.


Poisoning by a nerve agent leads to contraction of pupils, profuse salivation, convulsions, involuntary urination and defecation, and eventual death by asphyxiation as control is lost over respiratory muscles. Some nerve agents are readily vaporized or aerosolized and the primary portal of entry into the body is the respiratory system. Nerve agents can also be absorbed through the skin, requiring that those operating near such agents wear a full body suit in addition to a respirator.


There are, in some cases, antidotes to nerve agents.  Atropine and related anticholinergic drugs act as antidotes because they block acetylcholine receptors, but they are poisonous in their own right. That is, while these drugs will save the life of a person affected with nerve agents, that person may be incapacitated briefly or for an extended period, depending on the amount of exposure. The endpoint of atropine administration is the clearing of bronchial secretions. Atropine for field use by military personnel is often loaded in an autoinjector, for ease of use in stressful conditions.


Pralidoxime chloride, also known as 2-PAM chloride, is also used as an antidote. Rather than counteracting the initial effects of the nerve agent on the nervous system like atropine, pralidoxime chloride reactivates the poisoned enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) by scavenging the phosphoryl group attached on the functional hydroxyl group of the enzyme. Safer to use than atropine, it takes longer to act.


There are several series of nerve agents, the most prevalent of which are briefly described below:


G Series

High volatility nerve agents that are typically used for a nonpersistent to semipersistent effect in that they will dissipate fairly rapidly from an affected area.  They include: Tabun (GA), Sarin (GB), Soman (GD) and Cyclosarin (GF)


SarinGasShells (1)







GV Series

These agents have a medium volatility and are typically used to deny an area to opposing forces for a significant period of time (semi-persistent to persistent effect).  They include:  Novichok agents and GV (nerve agent).


V Series

These have low volatility and are used for a persistent (long term area denial) effect or liquid contact hazard.  They include:  VE, VG, VM and VX.


T Series

These agents are related to the puffer fish Tetrodotoxin and include Saxitoxin (TZ).


Terrified yet?  You should be.  Chemical weapons are some of the most lethal substances ever created.  They’re the kind of things we wish, as a society, that we could un-invent.  But if they terrify you, just think what they’ll do to your readers!


Are you using chemical weapons in any of your works-in-progress? If you need clarification, ask Adam about it in the comment field below.

On Wednesday, debut author (and return guest) SONALI DEV joins us.



Adam Firestone

Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.

Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.

Check out Adam’s blog here:

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17 Responses to “It’s Chemistry, Baby! A Short Primer on Chemical Weapons for Authors by Adam Firestone”

  1. Morning Adam…

    wow, what a scary way to start the day! =)

    I remember the movie The Rock, Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. The little glass balls held some poisonous compound and Nic had to inject (I believe) atropine into his heart when he got exposed to it. Excellent movie, very edge-of-your seat!

    What about Agent Orange? I remember that being the big talk on the news when I was a kid and you still hear about that occasionally..

    Thanks Adam..another fab post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 3, 2014, 8:28 am
  2. Good article/lecture. I’m bookmarking it for future reference.

    But I gotta ask. . . Why wasn’t my home cooking included? It’s been called lethal at least a couple dozen times. Even the cats won’t go near it (and they, being cats, will eat anything they shouldn’t).

    Oh well. There’s always next year’s list. 😉

    Posted by The Boca Deb | November 3, 2014, 9:16 am
  3. LOL – I can relate, Boca!

    Adam – This was too scary for a Halloween post. What is REALLY terrifying is that these weapons aren’t fiction.

    My grandfather was a doctor who served in France in WWI. He left some journals where he briefly talked about the horrors of mustard gas. The worst part for him as a doctor was seeing the soldiers in so much agony and not being able to do anything for them.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 3, 2014, 9:28 am
  4. We hear a lot about anthrax – would that be considered a chemical weapon?

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 3, 2014, 9:29 am
  5. This was a great post. I always enjoy reading your column, Adam.

    Posted by Mercy | November 3, 2014, 12:15 pm
  6. As a human – ew. As a writer – thanks! I like to have a few of these sorts of reources at my fingertips. Great and oogy article.
    By the way, my son is a weapons expert.

    Posted by Karen R. Sanderson | November 3, 2014, 6:43 pm
  7. Comment to R.U. – I wish you would make it easier for me to find social networking links for the bloggers you have…like their Twitter handle, FB handle, LI handled, etc.

    Posted by Karen R. Sanderson | November 3, 2014, 6:54 pm
  8. Adam,

    Acetylcholine. Hydroxyl groups. This takes me back to Bio 101 and Chem 1A. I know that cyanide smells like bitter almonds because I watch too much Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Does the government (or regulatory agency) monitor these agents?

    Thanks for another keeper post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 3, 2014, 9:20 pm
  9. FYI – The link to Adam’s blog is at the bottom of his bio. In the first line of the introduction to his post, if you click on his name it will take you to his Facebook page. We frequently use hyperlinks instead of full URLs.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 3, 2014, 9:54 pm
  10. Adam – Thanks so much for hanging out with us today!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 3, 2014, 9:55 pm
  11. Hi there would you mind letting me know which webhost you’re using?

    I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different web browsers and I must say
    this blog loads a lot faster then most.
    Can you recommend a good internet hosting provider at a honest price?
    Cheers, I appreciate it!

    Posted by domain | November 17, 2014, 7:23 pm
  12. Awesome post ! where can i possibly find a look a like army class a uniform for an infant. I plan on having a small wedding when my husband gets back from deployment. He should be leaving in november or december of this year.

    Posted by Rakha | April 13, 2016, 1:44 am


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