Breaking down chemical weapons

Chemists with the US military have developed Decon Green, a range of products designed to non-toxically decontaminate nerve gas, mustard gas, radioactive isotopes and anthrax.

The formulas are based on ingredients found in foods, cosmetics and other consumer products.

George Wagner and colleagues explained that chlorine- and lye-based decontamination agents are already potentially hazardous and can react with chemical weapons and materials in the environment to form new toxic substances.

Decontaminating a large area could produce runoff that is harmful to people and the environment.

To solve that problem, military scientists developed the Decon Green suite of decontamination agents. The main ingredients in each Decon Green formula are peroxides, which are in many household cleaners and whitening toothpaste.

To bolster their effectiveness, the peroxides are mixed with bicarbonates or other non-toxic bases to produce peroxyanions − highly reactive ions that can completely break down chemical weapons such as nerve gas.

Wagner described putting the new cleaning agents through an exhaustive battery of tests. His team concluded that each formula can break down toxic chemicals, rather than just washing them away.

They also showed that Decon Green is effective at killing anthrax spores, and removing radioactive cesium and cobalt from smooth surfaces.

One of the formulas that they tested can work in sub-zero temperatures. Another is a powder, which can be easily transported and mixed with water at the scene of an emergency.

A detailed evaluation of the cleansers appears in ACS’s Industrial Engineering and Chemistry Research.