Chemical Warfare Agents: Verification of Compounds Containing the Phosphorus-Methyl Linkage in Waste Water

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Science  11 May 1979:
Vol. 204, Issue 4393, pp. 616-618
DOI: 10.1126/science.204.4393.616


The chemical analysis of the waste water from plants that manufacture chemicals is a nonintrusive method for confirming a suspected violation of the prohibition against the production of chemical warfare agents. The chemical structure of most nerve gases is related to that of methylphosphonic acid, whereas most organo-phosphorus pesticides have the phosphoric acid structure. On the basis of this characteristic difference, a procedure has been developed in which the presence of a nerve gas, its decomposition products, or its starting materials in waste water (Rhine River and Meuse River water) is reflected by the appearance of methylphosphonic acid as a breakdown product after hydrolysis. This acid is concentrated and converted into a volatile compound by methylation. After cleanup, the ester may be separated from related compounds by gas chromatography and is detected by means of a specific detector for phosphorus. The detection limit of nerve gases by this procedure is approximately 1 nanomole per liter of water. The scope and limitations of the method are discussed.