How Much Do You Know About Chemical Weapons?


By: John Miller

6 Min Quiz

Image: Frank Rossoto Stocktrek/DigitalVision/Getty Images

About This Quiz

Throughout history, humans have tinkered with various types of chemical weapons. In ancient times, they used poison arrows to kill their enemies. The Spartans may have ignited various combinations of flammable materials to create toxic smoke that killed opposing soldiers. And in the 20th century, of course, scientists took chemical warfare to horrifying new lows, allowing armies to loft incredibly dangerous concoctions to incapacitate their entrenched foes. In this truly noxious quiz, what do you know about chemical weapons?

Even before the 20th century, many nations had agreed not to use chemical weapons in war. Why? Because these types of weapons often cause the kind of intense and lingering suffering that even bombs and bullets cannot. Sometimes, troops (and innocent civilians) will encounter terrible blisters, blindness, paralysis and choking, all caused by modern chemicals. What do you know about the effects of these modern menaces?

In spite of the suffering they cause, most advanced nations keep a stockpile of these chemicals on hand … just in case. And although the U.S. has reduced its supplies of chemical agents, it still has plenty in its arsenal should another country decide to leverage these scary tools. From mustard gas, to sarin, to phosgene and VX, what do you really know about chemical weapons?

What's the purpose of a chemical weapon?

Chemical weapons have ill intent. They're meant to hurt or even kill people, and many of them work in insidious and terrible ways.


Chemical weapons fit best into which category?

They are WMDs -- weapons of mass destruction. Chemical weapons can easily be spread over large geographic areas, killing indiscriminately.


Which of the following would be considered a chemical weapon?

There are many types of chemical weapons, such as nerve gas. Even common pepper spray and tear gas are considered chemical weapons.


Which war saw the first widespread use of chemical weapons?

So your enemy is hiding in miles of deep trenches and there's no way to uproot them. How do you attack? With terrifying poison gases, that's how. And that's one more reason World War I was so awful.


How were chemical weapons dispersed during World War I?

During World War I, both sides used the wind to disperse poisonous gases. As you can imagine, this plan often backfired the worst possible way … because when the wind suddenly shifted, you were in big, big trouble.


Sulfur mustard is better known as what?

Sulfur mustard is mustard gas. It was widely used in WWI, and it caused all sorts of grievous injuries.


Mustard gas has a distinct odor that’s been likened to what?

WWI soldiers always knew when mustard gas was present. It had distinctive smell of garlic, or even horseradish. For many, it became the smell of terror.


CS gas is better known as what?

When it comes to riot control, CS gas is a standard tool in America. It's better known as tear gas … and you don't want to experience it.


What's a common effect of mustard gas?

Mustard gas exposure causes awful blistering of the skin. Inhale too much of this scary stuff and even your lungs will erupt in painful blisters.


In WWI, how did troops know that a chlorine attack was coming?

You can imagine the feeling of horror -- watching a giant green cloud roll across no man's land. But the good thing about a chlorine attack was that you knew it was coming, and it gave you time to find your gas mask.


Germany initiated the first large-scale chemical attack in the Great War. How did it launch these attacks?

In January 1915, Germany blasted nearly 20,000 artillery shells containing a type of tear gas. But it was so cold that the chemicals were frozen … and thus, didn't really work.


How does a chlorine attack kills its victims?

Chlorine, in high concentrations, can cause asphyxiation. Because the gas is heavier than air, many WWI troops avoided harm by climbing higher in their trenches.


VX is a famous chemical weapon that falls into which category?

VX ominously stands for "venomous agent X," and it's an infamous nerve agent. Developed by the British following WWII, it's been used in several high-profile attacks.


Of the people who are exposed to mustard gas, what percentage die?

Mustard gas is incredibly painful and can lead to all sorts of health problems. But only about 1% of exposed people die.


Compared to WWI, how many chemical weapons were used in WWII?

By the time WWII rolled around, few commanders wanted to risk the political fallout of using more chemical weapons. So although fewer of them were deployed in WWII, they did still see some use.


How did the Hague Convention affect chemical weapons?

Since the Hague Convention in 1899, chemical weapons have essentially been banned. But of course, rules are made to be broken.


In 1988 Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein massacred thousands of Kurds in the Halabja chemical attack. Which chemical did his men use?

In the horrifying Halabja chemical attack, Hussein's men launched mustard gas at Kurdish civilians. It was the biggest chemical attack on innocents in human history.


Which chemical weapon claimed the most victims in WWI?

Mustard gas might be the most notorious of the WWI-era chemical weapons. But it was phosgene, which has the pleasant smell of freshly cut grass, that killed nearly 9 out of 10 troops who died from chemical weapons.


What color is phosgene?

Unlike some gases, say, chlorine, phosgene is colorless. So in wartime, it can creep up on its victims.


In 1995, a famous sarin attack happened in which city?

In 1995, crazed cult members unleashed a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system. More than a dozen people died and more than 1,000 were injured. The cult may have initiated the attack in part to jump start the apocalypse.


What's one effect of pepper spray?

Pepper relies on capsaicin from pepper plants. It might make spicy food fun, but when it's sprayed directly in your eyes it forces them to close. It will also make you scream.


At high concentrations, how long does it take for hydrogen cyanide to kill a person?

In WWI, hydrogen cyanide was used in some limited instances, and indeed, at high concentrations it can kill in just one minute. But because it's lighter than air it tends to quickly disperse into the atmosphere.


What was the purpose of Agent Orange?

Agent Orange gained infamy during Vietnam, when the U.S. used countless gallons of it to defoliate huge swaths of the jungle. But it also caused horrible side effects in both the natives and American troops.


What happens after mustard gas is dispersed through an area?

Unlike many chemicals, mustard gas doesn't just immediately drift away. It clings to the environment thanks to its oily consistency … and weeks later, it can still harm you.


What's a "binary" chemical weapon?

Unitary chemical weapons are deadly just as they are. Binary weapons, however, contain more than one chemical agent, and they aren't deadly until they are combined in battle.


How did the Allies dispose of Germany's chemical weapons following WWII?

"Well, we have millions of gallons of chemical weapons from Hitler. Let's just throw them all in the ocean. No one will know." So that's exactly what they did.


In WWI, mustard gas was primarily used for which purpose?

Mustard gas is lethal in very high concentrations … but it's hard to generate those concentrations on an active battlefield. So in WWI, this chemical was mostly used to frighten or harass the enemy.


Iraqi commander Ali Hassan al-Majid led the biggest chemical attack on civilians ever. What was his famous nickname?

Ali Hassan al-Majid led the 1988 chemical attack on Kurdish civilians, earning him the nickname "Chemical Ali." He was captured and convicted of war crimes in 2010 … and then executed by hanging.


About how many troops died from chemical attacks in WWI?

Both sides deployed ungodly (and inhumane) amounts of chemical agents in WWI. In many places, the weapons worked -- about 100,000 troops died from these attacks.


What's one possible consequence of pepper spray?

Because you can buy pepper spray at retail outlets, many people think it's relatively harmless. But pepper spray is very hard on the human body … and in some cases, it's been linked to deaths.


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