The best laboratory in the world was awarded

When sarin samples from Syria had to be examined quickly, the institute of chemical weapons Verifin at the University of Helsinki was an obvious choice.

The chemical weapons institute Verifin of The University of Helsinki has received the prestigious OPCW Hague Award. The OPCW is the international organization for prohibiting chemical weapons and the 2013 Nobel peace prize winner. Verifin is the Finnish national authority and laboratory developing research methods for the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Verifin was awarded for “outstanding achievements in advancing the goals of global chemical disarmament” and for its 40 years of work in the field.

“One can almost certainly say that this is the best verification laboratory in the world”, says the head of the institute, professor Paula Vanninen.

Nerd of international proficiency tests

It is the best for several reasons. Firstly, since the year 1973 Finland has developed research procedures and shared results openly for other nations – also during the Cold War times. While other countries house their laboratories within military properties, Verifin is located at a university.

Besides, Verifin is the nerd of international proficiency tests. Verifin’s methods always get an A, and have received perfect scores since 1998.

“Our chemists are very experienced. Once you come here, you stay for the rest of your life. This is such an interesting job”, Vanninen says.

Syria joined the chemical weapons convention

For these reasons, Finland was one of four countries to which the UN sent samples of chemical weapons from Syria in June 2013. The other countries were Sweden, Germany and Switzerland.

“Some official in the UN accidentally mentioned the recipient countries to the public. After that my phone rang for two weeks”, Vanninen recounts.

Examining the sarin samples was the biggest event of Vanninen’s career. The Verifin team was alert the whole summer and autumn. The UN wanted the results in six days and the 400-page report within two weeks. The validity had to be certain.

Now Syria’s chemical weapons have been destroyed aboard a ship in the Mediterranean and Syria has joined the chemical weapons convention.

Chemical weapons dumped in the Baltic Sea

The event proved the OPCW’s ability to act effectively and Verifin’s importance. Previously, Vanninen was often asked what the chemists at Verifin actually do.

“Our main purpose is to remain prepared and aim to eliminate the probability of new cases”, Vanninen explains.

The procedural research at Verifin is, in a sense, training: the chemists add nerve agents or mustard gas to different substances and devise methods of recovering and analysing them. There are tens of thousands of possible compounds that could mix with treaty-related chemicals.

The chemists also analyse new molecules that might be used as chemical weapons.

In addition, Verifin is one of the parties researching chemical weapons dumped in the Baltic Sea. On the sea bottom lies 40 000 tons of weapons dating to the Second World War, plus tons of other toxins. Verifin is currently analysing the effect on fish and blue mussels.

Training chemists from developing countries

On top of research, Verifin attends inspections required by the OPCW and trains chemists and authorities from developing countries.

In the midst of it all, they need to apply for funding. Verifin gets 40 percent of its funds from the foreign ministry and 60 percent for example from EU programmes. The University of Helsinki provides administration and the lab space in the department of chemistry in Kumpula.

The continuous applying for funds is the only drawback in Paula Vanninen’s job. “My work is an interesting mix of chemistry and world politics. I get to travel a lot to Africa and Asia. Thanks to international training, the world also comes to us.”