Fate of the chemical warfare agent O-ethyl S-2-diisopropylaminoethyl methylphosphonothiolate (VX) on soil following accelerant-based fire and liquid decontamination.

Research paper by M R MR Gravett, F B FB Hopkins, A J AJ Self, A J AJ Webb, C M CM Timperley, J R JR Riches

Indexed on: 29 Jun '14Published on: 29 Jun '14Published in: Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry


In the event of alleged use of organophosphorus nerve agents, all kinds of environmental samples can be received for analysis. These might include decontaminated and charred matter collected from the site of a suspected chemical attack. In other scenarios, such matter might be sampled to confirm the site of a chemical weapon test or clandestine laboratory decontaminated and burned to prevent discovery. To provide an analytical capability for these contingencies, we present a preliminary investigation of the effect of accelerant-based fire and liquid decontamination on soil contaminated with the nerve agent O-ethyl S-2-diisopropylaminoethyl methylphosphonothiolate (VX). The objectives were (a) to determine if VX or its degradation products were detectable in soil after an accelerant-based fire promoted by aviation fuel, including following decontamination with Decontamination Solution 2 (DS2) or aqueous sodium hypochlorite, (b) to develop analytical methods to support forensic analysis of accelerant-soaked, decontaminated and charred soil and (c) to inform the design of future experiments of this type to improve analytical fidelity. Our results show for the first time that modern analytical techniques can be used to identify residual VX and its degradation products in contaminated soil after an accelerant-based fire and after chemical decontamination and then fire. Comparison of the gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) profiles of VX and its impurities/degradation products from contaminated burnt soil, and burnt soil spiked with VX, indicated that the fire resulted in the production of diethyl methylphosphonate and O,S-diethyl methylphosphonothiolate (by an unknown mechanism). Other products identified were indicative of chemical decontamination, and some of these provided evidence of the decontaminant used, for example, ethyl 2-methoxyethyl methylphosphonate and bis(2-methoxyethyl) methylphosphonate following decontamination with DS2. Sample preparation procedures and analytical methods suitable for investigating accelerant and decontaminant-soaked soil samples are presented. VX and its degradation products and/or impurities were detected under all the conditions studied, demonstrating that accelerant-based fire and liquid-based decontamination and then fire are unlikely to prevent the retrieval of evidence of chemical warfare agent (CWA) testing. This is the first published study of the effects of an accelerant-based fire on a CWA in environmental samples. The results will inform defence and security-based organisations worldwide and support the verification activities of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.