Army lab in Edgewood tied to Nobel-winning chemical weapons disarmament group

Alex Jestel, a chemist, sits at a scanning electron microscope in the Forensic Analytical Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Alex Jestel, a chemist, sits at a scanning electron microscope in the Forensic Analytical Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground.(Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

A team of scientists at Aberdeen Proving Ground may play a critical role in helping the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, disarm Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons.

In a squat brick building surrounded by two layers of chain-link fence topped with razor wire, the U.S. Army's Forensic Analytical Center is capable of dissecting samples of suspected or destroyed chemical weapons. It is one of 21 labs around the world certified to work with the organization to confirm the presence of nerve agents and other chemical weapons.


At least one of those 21 labs helped confirm the use of sarin nerve gas in an August attack in Syria that killed more than 1,400 people. Officials at the Army lab, part of the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center on the Harford County base, won't say whether it was involved.

But as global leaders pursue dismantling Syria's chemical weapons programs, labs like the one in Edgewood could play a key role going forward.

"Their technical expertise has likely been drawn upon," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said of the Army chemists. "Before you start handling material, you've got to understand what it is and what it isn't so you can employ the right handling operations for that material."

After the sarin attack near Damascus, the United Nations and the chemical weapons organization launched investigations as President Barack Obama threatened a retaliatory U.S. strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which was blamed for the attack. The organization's deployment to Syria, coupled with the intervention of Russia, led to an agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stores.

For that, the organization won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize in October. Nobel Peace Prize committee head Thorbjoern Jagland said the award also was a reminder to nations such as the United States and Russia to eliminate their own large stockpiles, "especially because they are demanding that others do the same, like Syria."

"We were aware that our work silently but surely was contributing to peace in the world," OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu said when the prize was announced. "The last few weeks have brought this to the fore. The entire international community has been made aware of our work."

The OPCW is a multinational organization established to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production, stockpiling and use of such weapons.

In Syria, it may face resistance to its mission to gather and destroy the regime's chemical weapons. CNN reported Tuesday that U.S. officials are reviewing intelligence that Syria plans to retain a secret cache of the weapons after the OPCW's mission is completed.


The Forensic Analytical Center in Edgewood's involvement with the OPCW dates to 1996. Stanley Ostazeski, the center's chief, acknowledged that a third of the center's budget goes toward its responsibilities to the OPCW. He declined to disclose the size of that budget.

It's possible that the center could receive samples from Syria if it hasn't already. Ostazeski would only say the lab has scrutinized samples for the OPCW in the past, but not how recently or how often.

OPCW officials declined to be interviewed.

Officials reveal little about the work the lab performs, but one past project in 2003 involved scrutinizing samples of suspected nerve and blister agents found by soldiers in Iraq as part of the Bush administration's search for weapons of mass destruction, according to a Baltimore Sun article on the center published a decade ago.

Other lab projects involve testing samples of suspected chemical agents for defense, law enforcement and compliance agencies. Officials declined to discuss the work except to say it includes testing on agents collected within U.S. borders for use as evidence by law enforcement.

The center does not produce or develop chemical agents.


One former OPCW official said while labs like the one in Edgewood are an invaluable resource for weapons inspectors, they have rarely been needed.

In countries that are party to the chemical weapons convention, the organization's inspectors conduct routine walk-throughs of industrial chemicals manufacturing sites and perform tests to verify that chemical weapons aren't being produced, said Ralf Trapp, now an independent consultant on disarmament based in southern France. The inspectors also perform tests in mobile laboratories at sites where chemical weapons stocks are being destroyed, he said.

But the network of labs around the world can be tapped for help when a test result is unclear or disputed, Trapp said. The labs would also be used if a country that is party to the chemical weapons convention accused another member state of chemical weapons production, which has never occurred, he said.

Along with the Edgewood facility, there is one other OPCW-certified lab in the United States, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Others are in Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Britain, Norway, France and Spain.

Given the complexity of Syria's case, the labs could become more important. Chemical weapons inspectors still are planning where and how to destroy Syria's stockpile. The weapons likely will be moved out of the country for destruction because the continuing Syrian civil war would make it difficult and dangerous to move inspectors and equipment into the country.

At least two labs would receive any samples from the Syrian stockpile, and it's likely inspectors would favor facilities in Europe because they are closest, Trapp said. But extra consideration could be given to labs with expertise in scrutinizing biological samples, such as the blood, urine or tissue of victims, if such samples require testing, he said.

Officials at the Aberdeen lab said they are capable of testing biological samples such as urine.

Wherever the testing occurs, the efforts to demilitarize Syria's chemical stocks are uncharted territory for the OPCW and world leaders, said Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland.

It is believed that Syria began developing chemical weapons in the 1980s as a response to Israel's nuclear weaponry program, which dates to the 1960s, though Syria never publicly acknowledged its stockpiles, Leitenberg said. Now, the country has agreed to turn them over under intense political pressure and threat of U.S. military action, despite Assad's denying responsibility for the sarin gas attack.

"I don't know that there's any other precedent for a country denying possession and then admitting it in a very small way," Leitenberg said. "The OPCW has not had a role of this sort ever before."

In Edgewood, the Army chemists are aware of their work's importance and take pride in being part of the OPCW's network. The lab's staff of 18 spends 15 days straight each year, typically in the spring, deciphering the contents of six samples as a test to maintain the partnership.


"It's kind of like a big puzzle," said Joy Ginter, a research chemist in the lab.

The samples may be a drop of liquid, a glob of glue or a solid residue. The chemists aren't told how many compounds each might contain, and they often find that the tests, prepared and graded by separate peer labs, contain curveballs.

In one test, the Edgewood lab was one of only two to find and correctly report a compound that is not named in chemical abstracts, but that the chemists were able to detect, break down and identify.

"They know the things that make samples hard, so they put those in the test," said Alexis Jestel, a chemist who coordinates the lab's test efforts. "It's harder than any real-life scenario. They can have confidence in that data because the labs have dealt with much worse."

They acknowledge that's because it's vital that they get it right when it comes to the real-life samples.

"What you do has tremendous consequences," said George Hondrogiannis, a senior scientist at the lab.

Reuters contributed to this article.