Dr. Syeda Sultana Razia: Chemical Security and the Dangers of Chemical Weapons

The Dangers of Chemical Threats

[Alaina Rumrill] Throughout history, humans have used chemical weapons to create massive destruction with small chemical quantities [1]. An infamous example of a chemical weapon is mustard gas, used in World War 1. The properties of mustard gas cause severe burns and damage to the skin, eyes, and respiratory system, leaving many people with long-term health consequences [2]. Chemical accidents also pose significant chemical threats. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 ranks among the most significant chemical disasters in history, standing out as one of only two nuclear energy accidents rated at the maximum severity on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Due to ignored safety measures and a flawed reactor design, the nuclear power plant exploded [3]. The deposition of radioactive materials over a large area resulted in 28 casualties from acute radiation syndrome within weeks of the accident [3]. 

As a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Dr. Syeda Sultana Razia works to analyze cases of chemical threats in terms of chemical safety and security [2]. Although Dr. Razia’s home in Bangladesh is not very dangerous in terms of chemical security, issues such as the theft of chemical weapons are particularly possible. Dr. Syeda Razia has worked on multiple international cases, including that of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. Chemical threats can be international, external, or internal threats, making the need for chemical security absolutely critical [2]. 

Chemical Safety & Security

Chemical security ranges from preventing unauthorized access to dangerous substances to minimizing the risks posed by chemical incidents and safeguarding chemical facilities [2]. Security measures typically include emergency response planning, public awareness and outreach, inventory management, and information security [2]. Multisector collaboration is particularly important since chemical security covers such a wide range. Chemical security involves many stakeholders, including government agencies, chemical manufacturers, transporters, emergency responders, and the private sector [2]. Communication between these sectors is key when rapidly evolving chemical security threats are present. Collaboration between them also helps to develop and implement the right policies related to chemical security. In working together, these sectors aim to keep the general public safe and informed [2]. 

While chemical security focuses on preventing malicious or unauthorized use of chemicals, chemical safety ensures the safe handling, storage, use, and disposal of chemicals to protect human health and the environment [2]. Chemical safety can involve vigorous risk assessment of certain substances. This involves proper training and education on working with chemicals and encouraging the use of personal protective equipment like goggles and gloves [2]. 

Combatting Chemical Threats

The best way to combat potential chemical threats is by preventing them. Dr. Razia states that once an incident happens, handling it may be very expensive and dangerous. “It is best to prevent it or stop it at the very beginning” [2]. An important part of Dr. Syeda Sultana Razia’s work is identifying risk assessment, which is the identification and evaluation of the potential hazard of a chemical [2]. Even before an incident occurs, it is possible to do a risk assessment. The first condition to consider is the quantity of a material: a large amount of hazardous material will result in a large release of that material [2]. Secondly, it is important to consider the population density of an area. When a large amount of toxic material is released into a desert, not many people or infrastructure are affected. Under the same chemical conditions in a densely populated area, chemical release could cause havoc. Risk assessment is important in understanding the consequences of an event of a certain magnitude. 

Software for Safety

Dr. Syeda Sultana Razia is currently involved in a project to develop multipurpose software for chemical safety. The application will enable users to scan a product, such as a shampoo or mosquito repellent, for chemical ingredients [2]. This software resembles websites that identify harmful ingredients in makeup products. However, Dr. Razia’s efforts extend to a wider range of products and applications, encompassing a broader spectrum. The app will also allow users to view the toxic properties of each chemical, understand their impact on health, and make informed decisions about which chemicals should be replaced.  [2]. While browsing a list of chemicals, the software will provide alternative options for each specific chemical, or chemical substitution, offering recommendations for safer ingredient choices [2]. Dr. Razia uses mosquito repellent as an example. Mosquito repellent uses a chemical called DET, which can give a rash to your skin. In replacing toxic chemicals with better alternatives, she suggests using picaridin instead. Another alternative to storebought mosquito repellent is citronella oil, a natural essential oil [2]. Dr. Razia points out that in the application, the hazard analysis will effectively show that this oil is more hazardous than picaridin [2].  Dr. Razia’s contributions to the formation of this software stem from her fundamental belief that safety is paramount for all. Safety should always be implemented, whether it means dealing with chemicals in the laboratory, in the industry, or in everyday products. She states that there is no question about getting rid of chemicals, “the question is how safely and wisely can we manage them” [2]. As life relies on simple reactions, it is impossible to live without chemicals and chemistry. Dr. Syeda Sultana Razia shows that by adhering to chemical safety protocols, remaining vigilant against threats, and prioritizing public protection, we can effectively navigate these challenges [2].

Learn More

If you’d like to hear more about Dr. Syeda Sultana Razia’s journey in the field of chemical safety and security, visit us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and many other streaming services to listen to our ChemTalk Podcast with Dr. Syeda Sultana Razia, Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

Find the ChemTalk podcast here.

Works Cited

[1] Ganesan, K, S K Raza, and R Vijayaraghavan. “Chemical Warfare Agents.” Journal of pharmacy & bioallied sciences, July 2010.,mass%20casualties%20with%20small%20quantities. 

[2] Sultana Razia, Syeda. Personal Interview. Conducted by Olivia Lambertson and Yeongseo Son. 4 August 2023.

[3] “Chernobyl Accident 1986.” Chernobyl | Chernobyl Accident | Chernobyl Disaster – World Nuclear Association.