York University chemist Pierre Potvin, one of three civilian members of the Biological and Chemical Defence Review Committee, with a model of fentanyl, a highly lethal incapacitating aerosol similar to pepper spray or tear gas. An opioid that isn’t covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention, fentanyl was used against 50 armed Chechen separatists who seized the crowded Dubrovka theatre in Moscow Oct. 23, 2002. After a three-day siege, Russian special forces pumped fentanyl through the ventilation system. Forty Chechens and 130 hostages were killed by the effects of the gas. Photo by: Terence Scarnicchia
On Jan. 24, smoke rose into the air on the outskirts of Mosul, a large rebel-held city 400 kilometres north of Iraq’s capital of Baghdad. The black plume marked a successful air strike for the United States, which has carried out attacks since last August against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Iraq and Syria.
US Central Command, which orchestrates the campaign of air offenses, announced following the attack that Abu Malik, also known as Salih Jasim al-Sabawi, had been killed in the January attack. Malik was a “chemical weapons engineer” whose expertise would have given ISIL the wherewithal to “pursue a chemical weapons capability,” Central Command stated in a news release. His death “is expected to temporarily degrade and disrupt the terrorist network and diminish ISIL’s ability to potentially produce and use chemical weapons against innocent people.” The Iraqi government claimed that ISIL — a jihadist rebel group — has used chlorine gas against national police forces.
Iraq isn’t a stranger to chemical weapon use. Noxious substances like mustard gas and nerve agents were used in 1988 against the Iraqi Kurds under then-president Saddam Hussein. They were also used in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War.
More recently, in nearby Syria, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that the national government had used chlorine gas against villagers in the northern part of the country in 2013. Negotiations led by OPCW — whose team included Canadian chemist Scott Cairns — caused Syria to surrender its chemical weapons cache, which was subsequently destroyed. The OPCW was given the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. The award did not bring peace to Syria, with investigators returning in 2014 to probe further reports of chlorine attacks.
While chemical weapons attacks grab headlines today, they have a history of use that dates back to the chlorine and phosgene attacks of the First World War. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Allied powers scrambled to create a well-stocked chemical weapons arsenal, should counter assaults against German chemical attacks be required. However, unlike the first global conflict, conventional armaments were the weapons of choice during the Second World War, with nuclear bombs dispensing the coup de grâce to Axis ally Japan. After the war, tens of thousands of tonnes of such weapons remained stockpiled around the globe.
While the modern world loathes the idea of chemical weapons, malevolent governments or groups — Syria, ISIL or cults like Aum Shinrikyo, which undertook sarin attacks in Japan in the 1990s — illustrate how impossible it is to shove this evil back into Pandora’s Box. In the face of these threats, it is imperative that nations like Canada stay abreast of the latest in chemical weapons defence research and testing, in order to ensure our military is prepared should troops ever come under chemical attack — whether on missions of peacekeeping, counter-insurgency or even war. But if Canadian scientists are going to work with chemical and biological weapons, they must do so under the purview of defensive and not offensive actions. The important task of providing this critical oversight lies with a little-known agency: the Ottawa-based Biological and Chemical Defence Review Committee (BCDRC).
The BCDRC is made up of three eminent civilians. These include chemistry professor Pierre Potvin of York University, toxicologist Heather Durham of McGill University’s Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery and its current Chair, microbiologist Julia Foght, University of Alberta professor emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences. The BCDRC’s executive officer is retired Brig.-Gen James Selbie.
Potvin, who studies chemical catalysts for use in solar cells at York U, chaired the BCDRC in 2013 and was its past chair in 2014. Having served eight years with the BCDRC, Potvin is seeking to recruit someone from the chemistry community to replace him in this tribunal of civilian oversight. The responsibility is a key one within the framework of Canadian military policy. The BCDRC ensures that Canada’s Department of National Defence maintains a non-aggressive stance while it undertakes ongoing biological and chemical weapons research and testing. The role, Potvin says from his office at York U, “is to keep the public satisfied that the government’s activities with respect to biological and chemical warfare are safe and not offensive in nature. We also concern ourselves with the safety and adequacy of chemical and biological defence training.”
Canada’s huge stockpiles of mustard gas and other chemical and biological warfare agents were disposed of following the Second World War on land and in deep ocean disposal sites. Photo by: Library & Archives Canada
The demarcation between defensive and offensive isn’t always clear, especially during wartime. Certainly there were years when Canada — despite a long and proud reputation as international peacemaker — stepped over that line. John Bryden, in his 1989 book Deadly Allies: Canada’s Secret War 1937-1947, documented how easily this line can blur. During the Second World War, Bryden wrote, Canada took a leadership role among the Allied forces in chemical weapons experimentation, researching the effects of mustard gas on soldiers at Canadian Forces Base Suffield in Alberta. These experiments were driven in part by Canada’s Frederick Banting, who was a medical liaison officer with the British at the start of the war. A Nobel Prize winner, Banting had a stellar reputation, having discovered insulin alongside Charles Best at the University of Toronto nearly two decades earlier.
It was Banting who suggested that Canada’s vast open spaces would be ideal to undertake large-scale field trials, which led to Suffield, northwest of Medicine Hat, Alta. becoming a centre for chemical and biological field testing. According to Deadly Allies, Banting also undertook experiments on his own body, suffering mustard gas burns. Despite first-hand experience of its consequences, Banting and his researchers continued to test blister agents on soldiers. By 1944, hundreds of Canadian troops had been subjected to mustard gas testing at Suffield, enduring severe burns and even blindness. Similar research was also being carried out at the National Research Council labs in Ottawa under biologist Gordon Malloch. Meanwhile, “hundreds of tons of all kinds of poison gas were regularly rumbling between Halifax, Cornwall, Toronto, Windsor, Winnipeg, and Medicine Hat…,” Bryden wrote.
Members of the Biological and Chemical Defence Review Committee undergo a briefing at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont. in 2014. Photo by: Biological and Chemical Defence Review Committee
In a telephone interview from his home in Hamilton, Ont. Bryden reflects upon the ethical issues raised in his book. “It indirectly examines what individuals like Banting had to deal with: things like killing other people in wartime versus their conscience.” But it is clear from today’s global realpolitik that “any advanced nation needs to maintain a defensive expertise,” says Bryden, who was consulted on the creation of the BCDRC before its formal launch in 1990. “My recommendation was to set up a committee of distinguished persons in the field to tour facilities yearly. They would make themselves available to personnel who could express confidence or misgivings about their safety or policy concerns.”
Following the Second World War, Canada’s vast stockpiles of mustard gas were reduced to lab quantities while the rest was disposed of, says Bryden. But the methods of disposal were shoddy. Department of National Defence (DND) spokesperson Ashley Lemire confirmed that the surplus materials “possibly containing chemical or biological warfare agents were disposed of in Canadian lands and waters.” Today this would be considered “unacceptable,” Lemire says. This led to the creation of the Warfare Agent Disposal (WAD) project, which was undertaken in 2002 to identify and assess sites for clean up. Although WAD was shut down in 2011, there remain 11 sites where chemical or biological materials “could feasibly be present today,” says Lemire. These include three deep ocean disposal sites off the East and West coasts and another one on private property, she says.
Canada’s actions nearly two decades after the Second World War raised additional concerns about ethics and whether the country was taking an aggressive versus defensive posture. In 1966 and 1967, Canada participated in US military-backed testing of Agents Purple and Orange outside New Brunswick’s Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. These chemicals were used during the Vietnam War to defoliate forest and rural areas and blight crop production. Agent Orange was a mixture of 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4, D) and trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5,T). The latter contained TCDD, or 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, which is highly toxic even in small doses. “People were rightfully incensed, it seemed to clash with Canadian values,” says Potvin. “It was a dominant reason why this committee was created.”
These compounds affected not only Vietnamese who were exposed to the TCDD during the hostilities but Canadian soldiers. Just this past December, the federal Veterans Review and Appeal Board granted 83-year-old Basil McAllister of Burton, NB, who is ill with Type 2 diabetes and skin and prostate cancer, additional disability compensation due to his exposure to Agent Orange during testing in New Brunswick. (McAllister earlier had received a $20,000 flat payment from Ottawa that was granted individuals in 2007 who showed symptoms of Agent Orange exposure, such as lymphoma, respiratory cancers, prostate cancer and Type 2 diabetes.)
Today, the BCDRC focuses strictly upon current activities occurring under the auspices of the DND. It also visits facilities such as the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health (CSCHAH), a Level 4 infectious disease laboratory complex in Winnipeg that is capable of handling and testing the most deadly materials known today, such as the Ebola virus. (Canada’s Food Inspection Agency is based at the same facility.) BCDRC visits to the CSCHAH have only been to examine how the facility interacts with the DND and the Canadian Armed Forces. Because the CSCHAH can function as a rapid response team in case of biological incidents pertaining to possible outbreaks of super lethal bacteria, viruses or toxins, it therefore is “relevant to biological warfare,” Potvin says.
Another place where research on unconventional weapons can take place is at the DND’s Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) agency. The DRDC has eight research centres scattered across the country, which provide knowledge and technology to the Canadian Armed Forces and government departments to ensure public safety and protect Canadian interests here and abroad. BCDRC members will visit facilities like these during their twice yearly, week-long inspection trips. These visits are to gather information, says Potvin, as well as assess Canada’s emergency preparedness, especially in times of heightened threat, whether that be events like the 2010 Vancouver Olympics or military missions abroad.
The research and development being carried out at the DRDC centres is extensive. The Atlantic Research Centre, for example, studies mine and torpedo defence and antisubmarine warfare. Personnel at the Ottawa Research Centre develop technologies in such areas as radiological nuclear defence. But it’s the DRDC Suffield Research Centre that is the main centre of excellence for chemical and biological defence. Here on the vast expanse of semi-arid grassland, live training exercises are carried out with more than 2,000 personnel a year, including Canada’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, to keep abreast of any biological, chemical, explosive, nuclear or radiological threats. The toxicity of chemical warfare agents are assessed and the detection and identification of chemical, biological and radiological hazards extensively tested. “You have to know how to be offensive in order to build the proper defences against them, so it’s important to know how to weaponize a chemical agent,” says Potvin, who, along with his BCDRC colleagues, visits Suffield CFB when weapons exercises are carried out and keeps tabs year-round on the facility. For example, any accident involving chemical weapons — whether during live exercises or in a laboratory setting — no matter how minor, must be reported to the BCDRC, Potvin says.
Exactly what kind of chemicals or biological agents are of concern to the DND is considered top secret, says Potvin. However, it is believed that a so-called fourth generation of deadly nerve agents was developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And this, says Potvin, is worrisome. (World War One agents are classified as first generation.)
The Cold War has been over for 25 years. Yet global tensions abound and the threat of a chemical attack — while extremely low — cannot be ruled out. DND spokesperson Lemire says an estimated 70,000 tonnes of toxic agents still exist globally — most in the United States and Russia. However, there may be rogue states or terrorist groups who may be in possession of or are seeking to obtain chemical weapons, Lemire says.
Such realities necessitate vigilance, not only by our governments and military but groups like the BCDRC that help uphold and preserve Canadian values. As John Bryden says, “that’s why the Chemical and Biological Defence Review Committee is so important — it is an expression of Canada’s conscience.”