This is where Thomas believes new technology could help – by allowing rapid diagnosis following future attacks. For example, researchers at German electronics firm Gesellschaft für Analytische Sensorsysteme, or Gas for short, have developed a breath analyser that can detect low levels of biochemicals known as metabolites, which are produced by the human body as it reacts to harmful chemicals. In Mikkeli the smoke has been laced with peppermint and the volunteers were given peppermint oil capsules as a substitute for sarin that produces metabolites the instruments can detect.
By simply blowing into a plastic tube that has a syringe plunger attached, the breath of hundreds of potential victims can be analysed quickly. “It can give us an answer in about 40 seconds,” says Emma Brodrick, a systems application manager at Gas who helped develop the BreathSpec device.
Back in Mikkeli, Finland, I watch another type of sensor technology supporting the emergency services during the rehearsal. There is a faint buzzing as through the smoke – coloured white so it can be seen in this exercise – a small drone emerges. On board it is carrying highly sensitive, miniaturised instruments that sample the gas and wirelessly beam back the results to emergency crews.
“The drone lets us get samples from close to the source without putting personnel at risk,” explains George Pallis, an engineer and managing director of T4i, the company behind the technology. “It can also take samples over a wide area very quickly so we can get an idea of spread too.”
The Toxi-Triage consortium have also been developing technology that can pick up the signatures of poisonous chemicals from greater distances. Using specialised cameras that pick-up visible, ultraviolet and infrared light – known as hyperspectral imaging – it is possible to detect characteristic patterns that betray the presence of a chemical agent.
While at a much earlier stage than the drone-based technology, these hyperspectral detection systems could be used in handheld devices or mounted on aircraft that can fly overhead. Looking further ahead, the team behind it hope such technology could also be mounted on satellites with high-resolution optics, allowing authorities to monitor for the use of chemical weapons in war zones.
In places like Syria, where reports of chemical weapons use have relied upon information provided by local teams on the ground and subsequent testing of victims often days after the alleged attack, it could transform the ability to pinpoint attacks and find those responsible.