Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Ahmet Üzümcü

Anne Marie Lykkegaard/ESOF2014

Chemical weapons watchdog chief celebrates Syrian disarmament

COPENHAGEN—Ten months after news of a horrific chemical attack in Ghouta, near Damascus, shocked the world, the last 8% of Syria's known chemical arsenal left the country on Monday. The shipment was a high point in an international mission launched in October 2013 to destroy the country's stockpile, and a victory for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). But more needs to be done to make the world free of chemical weapons, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said at a meeting here on Wednesday—and he called on scientists to do their part in reaching that goal.

Under huge international pressure, the Syrian government agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a 1997 international disarmament treaty, in October 2013. The deal helped stave off U.S. military action after the Ghouta attack, which killed an estimated 1400 men, women, and children.

Syria's toxic chemicals—used to make sulfur mustards or nerve agents like sarin—will be destroyed at sea through a hydrolysis process, using water, sodium hydroxide, sodium hypochlorite, and heat. The technology, used in the United States in the past decades, will be used on board the U.S. vessel Cape Ray, because no country volunteered to host the destruction. The waste, called reaction mass, will then be incinerated in commercial disposal facilities. The whole process will last several months, meaning that the destruction program will miss its 30 June target. Still, the operation is a success, Üzümcü says, and the first time an entire arsenal of weapons of mass destruction is removed from a country where a civil war is raging.

Observers sounded a note of caution after the shipment was announced, saying there may be other, hidden weapons in Syria. For example, OPCW experts recently found that Syria has “most likely” used lung irritants such as chlorine, which is not classified as a chemical weapon in itself. But OPCW can't tell if there are more weapons in the country beyond the 1300 tons that the government has declared. “We aren't able to tell this for other countries, either,” Üzümcü told ScienceInsider at the EuroScience Open Forum, a biennial science meeting held here this week. “This is not our job, our job is to verify what is declared.”

Syria is the 190th country to sign the CWC. Under the treaty, the OPCW has overseen the destruction of 83% of chemical weapons declared by eight member states. Üzümcü says it will take 4 to 5 years to destroy most of the remaining stockpiles; the United States has set a 2022 deadline for its remaining stocks.

Only six countries have not signed or ratified the convention. Although Angola, Myanmar, and South Sudan may join soon, it will take longer for Egypt and Israel to do so, Üzümcü says. (The sixth nonmember country is North Korea.) “After Syria's membership, I urged these two countries to reconsider their positions, and I'll continue to do it,” he says.

Even if and when the whole world is completely free of chemical weapons, prevention will remain a big task, Üzümcü told the meeting. “[F]or disarmament to be truly effective, it must do more than simply remove weapons. It must ensure that they are not reacquired.” Scientists have an important role to play in that process, he adds. OPCW and national governments already employ chemists, physicians, and other specialists, for example as inspectors or advisers. But OPCW wants to engage a wider group of scientists—in particular those working in developing countries and younger researchers.

“We need to instill the highest ethical standards in our scientists at the very beginning of their careers, especially those with access to substances and facilities which could be misused,” Üzümcü told the meeting. He called on scientists in mentoring positions to help.

Out of the organization's annual €70 million budget, Üzümcü says about €6 million goes to promoting the peaceful use of chemistry, for example through scientific conferences, fellowship programs, or the provision of lab equipment—including in countries that have never declared chemical weapons. “In many countries the penal code includes references to our convention” and misguided scientists would have to be punished under national law, he tells ScienceInsider. “They have to be aware of their obligations.”