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Swedish Defence Research Agency

13 October

FOI surveys toxic gases

Inhalation of irritant gases such as ammonia or chlorine is acutely toxic. FOI is conducting a risk survey on behalf of a number of Swedish authorities and ministries. This also includes looking at innovative ways of caring for persons who have been afflicted.

Lab equipment and a bottle

Six researchers at FOI are involved in conducting the survey of toxic chemicals, including the risks and health effects they can cause. Among other things, the work includes the provision of an overview of medical care and treatment methods as well as short- and long-term health effects. Photo: Linda Elfsmark/FOI.

Toxic chemicals are found everywhere in our society. In Sweden, chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, chlorine and sulphur dioxide are used in industrial processes and transported via road and rail. Chlorine has been used as a chemical weapon since WWI and in the Syrian conflict, nearly a thousand chlorine gas attacks have been reported. During the war in Iraq, chemical tank trucks were blown up as a form of terrorist attack.

Six researchers at FOI are involved in conducting the survey of toxic chemicals, including the risks and health effects they can cause. The work has been commissioned by, for example, the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare and the Swedish Ministry of Defence. Among other things, the work includes the provision of an overview of medical care and treatment methods as well as short- and long-term health effects.

FOI evaluates alternative treatment methods

A person who has been exposed to toxic chemicals through inhalation often experiences two stages. The first stage resembles a chemically-induced lung inflammation.

“This is a condition not unlike what has affected many covid patients. It often requires treatment in a respirator and supplementary oxygen. This is where the National Board of Health and Welfare has assigned us to consider alternative treatment methods in e.g. the acute phase. For example with anti-inflammatory steroids. Our studies show that early treatment with steroids can alleviate the injurious effects of irritant gases,” says Dr. Sofia Jonasson, senior researcher, who, with researcher Linda Elfsmark, co-leads two projects on inhalation toxicology.

When the acute phase ends, the injury enters a chronic stage, in which the problems can resemble idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or those of an aging lung. Together with researchers at Britain’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), FOI researchers identified a number of biomarkers that show how a lung injury develops over time.

“This way, injuries can be detected sooner, which improves the treatment possibilities,” says Linda Elfsmark.

The work of surveying injuries and identifying treatment methods is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle made of many small pieces.

“There are few accidents, so it’s not possible to conduct any major clinical studies. Instead, we have to piece together knowledge where we find it, in Sweden and abroad,” says Sofia Jonasson.

International cooperation

In terms of knowledge, FOI’s work regarding protection against toxic chemicals is very much at the forefront. From a national perspective, this means that it is FOI that is contacted when accidents occur, most recently in Göteborg on September 1st, 2020, when a train carrying ethylene oxide was in a collision with another train. It also means that FOI is invited to participate in international cooperation.

“We have broad competence and excellent facilities, with a security-classed laboratory for highly toxic compounds. We are the only ones in Sweden who can work with these kinds of questions ” says Sofia Jonasson.

Exchanging knowledge within FOI also builds new knowledge.

“By getting help from those who work with dispersion calculations, we can make better estimates of the risks at an accident scene. In return, our work in identifying biomarkers contributes to forensically securing that toxic chemicals were released in a war,” says Linda Elfsmark.

An important part of the work is to keep an eye on new chemical threats, to see what dangers the future may bring.

“Hydrogen fluoride, for example, can produce toxic smoke from fires in rechargeable batteries, for instance in cars.”

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