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November 4, 2002
Volume 80, Number 44
CENEAR 80 44 p. 6
ISSN 0009-2347


Fentanyl used to incapacitate Chechens likely doesn't violate chemical arms ban


Responding to a request for clarification by Rogelio Pfirter, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko revealed that an aerosolized opiate based on fentanyl was used to end the recent hostage crisis. The narcotic, normally used as an anesthetic, killed at least 115 of the 750 people taken hostage by Chechen terrorists in a Moscow theater on Oct. 23.

Although Shevchenko didn't mention use of any other agent, German doctors reported finding the anesthetic halothane in body fluid samples taken from two surviving German hostages soon after rescue. Halothane is often used with fentanyl in medical situations.

Arms control experts say the use of fentanyl for law enforcement purposes probably doesn't violate the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Russia has ratified. Its use, however, may widen existing loopholes in the 1997 treaty, which bans the use of chemical weapons in warfare.

Russian officials initially refused to identify--even to medical personnel treating victims--the gas pumped through the theater's ventilation system, the concentration deployed, or possible antidotes. While not condemning the rescue operation, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow said that "with a little more information, at least a few more of the hostages may have survived."

Jean Pascal Zanders, director of the chemical and biological warfare project at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, suggests several reasons for Russia's reluctance to reveal the toxic chemical used. In addition to the still prevailing culture of secrecy, he says, "Russia may fear that knowledge of what is available to its special forces may aid future terrorists." Also, he adds, Russia "may fear accountability under the CWC."

Through trial and error, Russian doctors found that naloxone, an opiate antagonist, reversed the effects of the then-unknown knockout gas. This fingered an opiate as the likely agent.

As anesthetics, opiates are usually administered by injection and are carefully monitored. Fentanyl, however, is a rapid, short-acting, inhalable narcotic painkiller. Fentanyl-like compounds can induce sleep, cause nausea and vomiting, and, at high concentrations, stop respiration and circulation.

During the 1970s, in a program dubbed ARCADE, the Pentagon researched fentanyl and its chemical cousins as possible riot-control agents, says Matthew S. Meselson, a Harvard University molecular biologist and a chemical weapons expert. Edward Hammond, director of the nonprofit Sunshine Project, says, "The U.S. has been looking at opiates as so-called incapacitating chemical weapons since at least 1994."

Meselson contends that Russia's use of a toxic chemical agent in what is considered a law enforcement situation "is arguably not a violation of the CWC." But, he adds, "the law enforcement section of the treaty, Article II.9(d), needs to be clarified."

That section states that the use of toxic chemicals for "law enforcement, including domestic riot-control purposes" is "not prohibited under this convention." Though the treaty doesn't define law enforcement, Meselson argues that such actions "would require applicable domestic law and the jurisdiction to enforce such law." Both conditions were met by the Moscow situation, he says.

What is unclear is whether the Moscow crisis satisfied the condition for domestic riot-control purposes. Article II.7 defines a riot-control agent as a chemical not listed in the treaty that produces rapid disabling effects that quickly disappear after exposure ends. Clearly, this was not the case in the Russian situation. At press time, hundreds of victims were still hospitalized, several in serious condition.

Zanders says the upcoming 2003 CWC Review Conference will likely have to "clarify the concepts of law enforcement as well as riot-control, peacekeeping, and antiterrorism activities that don't qualify as warfare but do require the use of nonlethal chemical weapons."


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Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

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