Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons: Genotoxicity


Many chemical, biological radiological and nuclear weapons (CBRN) including mustard gas, nerve agents, Aflatoxin, nuclear and radiological weapons are genotoxic, neurotoxic and carcinogenic. They damage deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), cells, tissues and organs. Almost every decade since World War I (WWI) has seen CBRN manufacture or use, killing and injuring many hundreds of thousands. Survivors of CBRN use (WWI victims, WWII manufacture in Germany, Japan, UK, US and of Conflicts involving CBRN use, such as Northern Iraq, Afghanistan) face increased risk of cancers, infertility, medical disorders and reproductive health effects. Each agent has specific effects, for example, Aflatoxin causes liver cancer and is embryotoxic, Mustard gas, Nuclear and Radiological weapons cause haematological malignancies and solid tumours. This indicates each type of weapon causes specific types of genomic damage. Knowledge of the mechanisms of action of CBRN is important in identifying CBRN use, developing therapies to aid victims and counteracting the threats from these weapons.

Key Concepts:

  • Despite the Geneva Convention of 1925 prohibiting their use, CBRN have been widely used over the past 100 years in wars and conflicts to subjugate populations, kill and injure.

  • CBRN are genotoxic and neurotoxic leading to long‐term genomic damage and major risks for survivors of exposures.

  • There are currently few methods of identifying genomic damage in victims of CBRN; new methods such as next generation genome and transcriptome sequencing will allow the identification of damage and predict methods for screening, protection and treatment.

  • CBRN may be used by rogue governments or terrorist groups to kill, maim and cause long‐term medical damage.

  • CBRN have been used in ethnic cleansing campaigns, against guerrilla forces in mountainous regions as well as conventional wars and conflicts resulting in lethality and premature deaths through cancers, medical disorders, embryonic, fetal and infant deaths, birth defects and infertility, leading to ‘silent attrition’ of targeted populations.

  • There are no known treatments for CBRN damage as these agents cause long‐term irreversible genotoxic and neurotoxic damage; key elements for protection are to identify CBRN use, develop screening methods to identify those exposed, reduce ongoing contamination of food, water and environment, treat victims and develop therapies risks.

Keywords: genotoxicity; conflicts; carcinogen; mutagen; genocide

Figure 1.

Human genomic damage from weapons of mass destruction. The figure illustrates the way in which genotoxic agents can damage DNA and the consequences of DNA damage according to the cell types affected; somatic cells (cancers), male and female germ cells (transmission to future generations) and cells of developing embryo (birth defects). Also under genetic control are the mechanisms for DNA repair and detoxification that affect susceptibility and contribute to the severity of the effects. The time course of the response indicates that whereas DNA damage may occur in microseconds (emphasising the need for early detection and protection), clinical manifestations of this damage may occur hours to years after exposure. Because damage occurs at random within the genome and in different cell types, the same agent may cause a spectrum of effects that depend also on the agent, route of exposure, genetic susceptibility and dose in those affected. GI: gastrointestinal.



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Further Reading

Puga A and Wallace KB (eds) (1998) Molecular Biology of the Toxic Response. London: Taylor & Francis.

Somani SM and Romano JA (eds) (2001) Chemical Warfare Agents: Toxicity at Low Levels. Washington, DC: CRC Press.

Web Links

21st Century complete guide to bioterrorism, biological and chemical weapons, germs and germ warfare, nuclear and radiation terrorism – military manuals and federal documents with practical emergency plans, protective measures, medical treatment and survival information

Greenpeace. Evidence about Weapons testing

United Nations Special Commission on Iraq. Contains reports on Iraqi WMD, including mustard gas, sarin, VX, aflatoxin, botulinum toxin, anthrax and irradiated zirconium bombs

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Gosden, Christine M, and Gardener, Derek(Apr 2012) Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons: Genotoxicity. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0006075.pub2]