American University’s Professor of Chemistry Stefano Costanzi works at the intersection of science and policy, analyzing how global chemical weapons nonproliferation efforts are working, identifying gaps and weaknesses, and finding solutions. He holds a Laurea degree in Chemistry and a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry from the University of Camerino in Italy, and in 2015, to support his research and teaching interests in the implications of chemicals for security, he decided to go “back to school” to AU’s School of International Service, where he earned a Master of International Service degree. Read below on how he is working to close the gap in chemical weapons nonproliferation.
The landscape of international chemical weapons warfare is changing in deadly ways. Over the past 10 years, chemical weapons have been used in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in attacks against thousands of innocent citizens and political dissidents, leading to horrific human loss and suffering across the globe. Syria’s Assad regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces on numerous occasions, including one attack in 2013 that killed nearly 1,500 people. In 2017, North Korean agents were accused of using a nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jon-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. And most recently, former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, and Putin opponent Alexei Navalny, were poisoned with two different nerve agents of the Novichok family.
Costanzi has been watching these events closely. He is working with the Stimson Center’s Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program on a project funded by Global Affairs Canada to develop a software tool that can help frontline workers, including export and border control agents, to accurately identify controlled chemicals as they cross international borders.
Stopping controlled chemicals of security concern at borders is a critically important step towards preventing the proliferation of chemical weapons. With Costanzi’s tool, border agents will be able look up chemicals using information provided in the shipping documents. The data will be sorted and analyzed against lists of controlled chemicals. Agents will know within moments if the chemicals are allowed across the border.
Skills as Chemist, Interest in Global Security
A project like this requires extensive chemistry expertise and a deep understanding of chemicals. Costanzi holds a Laurea degree in Chemistry and a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry from the University of Camerino in Italy, and he is a member of the Global Team of the International Centre for Chemical Safety and Security. In addition to his work on chemical weapons, he focuses on computational chemistry strategies to study the interactions between chemicals and living organisms, mainly for pharmaceutical purposes. He recently received a $429,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue this research.
Costanzi’s chemical weapons work also requires in-depth knowledge of international policy and a sophisticated understanding of international relations. In 2015, to support his research and teaching interests in the implications of chemicals for security — and in bolstering chemical security across the world — he decided to go “back to school” to American University’s School of International Service, where he earned a Master of International Service degree in 2018.
He says it’s been a good decision, one that allowed him to bring together his technical skills as a chemist, along with his strong interest in global security, to make a real difference in chemical weapons nonproliferation.
A More Complex Threat
The job of export controllers and border control agents is getting more difficult as the chemical weapons landscape evolves, Costanzi explains. In the past, chemical weapons were most often used as weapons of mass destruction, like during World War I when gas warfare inflicted more than one million casualties on the battlefield and killed more than 90,000. Attacks like these require very large shipments of chemical weapons that are easy to track. But in recent years, small amounts of chemicals have been used for counter-insurgency attacks and targeted assassinations. They are becoming exponentially more difficult to find and identify as they cross borders.
Costanzi points out that the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpiles that were accumulated throughout the world prior to the CWC is nearing its completion. At this point, he says, it is important to work towards ensuring that the recent resurgence of chemical weapons usage is blocked.
Tracking Chemicals Across Borders
As chemicals cross international borders, agents have several ways of identifying them. Each chemical is identified with a name and a registry number. In a perfect world, agents would simply compare the names and/or numbers to official lists of controlled chemicals. However, in practice, things are more complex. For example, there are different names for each chemical, and variants of the same chemical have different registry numbers. Some of the lists of controlled chemicals contain entries that identify whole families of related chemicals without explicitly enumerating them. The problem is made worse because many agents don’t have sufficient training in chemistry to make sense of chemical synonyms, chemicals variants, and families of chemicals.
Costanzi’s tool will automate this entire process. The agents can enter any chemical name or number, and the software will check all lists of controlled substances and identify if it is covered or not.
The Stimson Center and Costanzi have worked together to develop the tool in prototype. They are seeking second-phase funding for field testing of the tool, followed by commercial development. Their ultimate goal is to develop it as a product that will be widely used across the world.
“With the development of this tool, we can contribute substantially to make the world a safer space,” Costanzi says.