Fire at the regional trade union council building in Odessa, Ukraine Photo: Barcroft Media
In the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, tactics reminiscent of the Cold War began emerging—ones that trace back to the KGB laboratories half a century ago. From guns that spray hydrogen cyanide to assassination attempts with “Agent Orange,” it seems that the use of chemicals as weapons (not to be confused with chemical weapons) is still on the Soviet agenda. On May 2nd 32 people died due to a fire in the trade unions building in Odessa, which were occupied by pro-Russian protesters. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed outrage and immediately accused Ukrainian authorities for responsibility of this scandal: however, as investigations progressed, a well-known agent came into the picture—chloroform. Large traces of chloroform were found in the ashes of the building coupled with open exits, unscathed parts of the building and positions of the bodies that did not show signs of escape or struggle puzzled authorities.
But why chloroform? Chloroform (CHCl3) is easily synthesized and dangerous depending on levels of exposure. It is a colorless liquid with a pleasant scent, and sweet taste (one of the discoverers that chemist Samuel Guthrie enjoyed was its “cherry like taste”) and occasionally took shots of the liquid. Chloroform can be easily synthesized by combining two common household items – bleach and acetone. In an exothermic reaction the two will form a heavy liquid where a simple decanting will yield a substantial amount of chloroform. Before chloroform was known to cause kidney and liver damage, it was used as an anesthetic, administered by breathing in more than 10000ppm of air. On its own chloroform is not a significant threat, but using it to incapacitate people in this situation is deadly.
Michael (Mykola) Schur
Chemical Engineering student at Calvin College