The good news is that 800 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons are scheduled to be destroyed before the end of December. The bad news is, the byproducts of this chemical weapon destruction will be dumped into the Mediterranean Sea where they could damage fragile ecosystems.
It’s nearly impossible to sift good news out from stories of the Syrian war: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq have together taken in more than one million Syrian refugees. But this leaves millions of others homeless or displaced within this war-torn country.
Even the fortunate few who find relative safety as refugees are anything but safe. They face violence, crime, heat, cold, rain, thirst, disease, malnutrition and their children are being exploited to do their host country’s dirty work.
People in faraway lands send hand-made hats to try to help keep some Syrian refugee children warm during this winter, only have these gifts meet bureaucracy and corruption at the host country’s border. But now Assad’s regime has agreed to destroy chemical weapons only months after it denied their existence.
On Friday December 7th, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) claimed to have destroyed some of Syria’s chemical weapons and this organization will receive a Nobel price for global disarmament.
But there is a dark side to even this glimmer of good news. The OPCW recently said it is “technically feasible” to destroy these chemical weapons in the Mediterranean Sea.
No one has given details of this chemical weapon destruction, but it is likely that they are being destroyed aboard a ship by hydrolysis instead of incineration.
What this means is that the chemical weapons will be mixed with other chemicals which will neutralize and de-weaponize them.
But one of the first things a budding chemistry student learns is to balance chemical equations. Except for the miniscule fraction of matter converted to energy or transmuted in nuclear reactions, all of the chemical elements present before the reaction will be present after the reaction.
For all practical purposes, matter is neither created nor destroyed. This means these weapons won’t disappear. They will simply change chemical form to something considered less harmful than the original chemical weapons. But this does not mean they will be rendered harmless.
Israel National News reports that Professor Moshe Kol, Organic Chemistry Professor at Tel Aviv University is concerned the the byproducts of chemical weapon destruction will harm sea life.
Byproducts of the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons are likely to include sodium hypochlorite and phosphoric acid. These are less harmful than the original chemical weapons.
But what is harmless at low concentrations and a small scale can be very harmful at large concentrations and an enormous scale. More than 800 tons of potentially harmful chemicals will be dumped into the Mediterranean Sea over the next few months. And that’s the good news.
Creative Commons photo of Wadi Qandil beach near Lattakia, Syria by Victor Ibrahiem via Wikimedia.