By Daniel J. DeNoon
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Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Dec. 6, 2012 -- Syria's military is reported to be prepared to use sarin, a potent nerve gas, posing an obvious threat to Syrian civilians -- and to the rest of the world.
What is sarin? What other chemical weapons are in Syria's arsenal? Might the weapons fall into the wrong hands? See below for answers to these and other questions posed by this troubling development.
What Is Sarin?
Sarin, also known as GB, is a man-made nerve gas not found in nature. It's one of the most deadly and fastest-acting chemical weapons known to man.
Developed by a German chemist in 1938, sarin was too dangerous for its intended use as a pesticide. The Nazis developed sarin into a chemical weapon, but never used it.
Iraq is thought to have deployed sarin weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq also used sarin in an attack on its own Kurdish population. It was used in the subways of Japan in a domestic terrorist attack by an apocalyptic cult.
How Does Sarin Harm People?
Sarin is a close relative of organophosphate bug-killers, but is far more powerful. On humans, it has much the same effect as these pesticides have on bugs.
According to the CDC, sarin blocks the chemical "off switch" for glands and muscles. Muscles quickly fail, and a person who gets a lethal dose stops being able to breathe.
Chemical weapons typically use aerosolized sarin, which has no odor or color. People exposed to the vapor, or who get a drop or two of liquid sarin on their skin, die within minutes to 18 hours. Sarin could also be used to poison water or food.
Sarin evaporates quickly. Clothing contaminated with sarin gives off deadly fumes for about 30 minutes, posing a risk to rescue workers and medical personnel.
Why Worry About Syria's Sarin?
Leonard Spector, deputy director of the nonprofit James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in 2011 reported that the U.S. government believes Syria has a large stockpile of chemical agents. These agents range from mustard gas -- infamously used during World War I trench warfare -- to sarin and an even more deadly nerve gas called VX.
Sarin is too corrosive and too dangerous to store in its active form. Weapons usually mix the final two sarin ingredients just before or during firing. News reports suggest the Syrian military already has begun mixing active sarin bombs to be loaded onto warplanes.
Use of such weapons would be an awful abuse of human rights. But that's not the only threat.
Spector says Syria has four or five chemical weapons plants near Damascus, Hama, Latakia, and Aleppo. There's already heavy fighting in those areas. There's a risk that these weapons might fall into the hands of criminals or terrorist organizations, or that Syria might ship them to nations more likely to use them than the Syrians had been.
Journalist Elaine M. Grossman, writing for Global Security Newswire, says a highly placed defense expert told her that the U.S. government has "essentially about 10 plans now in the works" for dealing with various possible scenarios. Those plans, she notes, are highly classified.
What Is VX?
VX, invented by a British chemist in the early 1950s, is a nerve gas even more deadly than sarin. Like sarin, it is tasteless and odorless. Unlike sarin, it is thick and oily. It evaporates only as quickly as motor oil and thus can remain in the environment for months.
What Are the Symptoms of Sarin and VX Poisoning?
The first signs of poisoning with sarin or VX are a runny nose and pinpoint pupils. Those who do not get an immediately lethal dose will have trouble breathing, fluid in the lungs, sweating, and muscle twitching.
There are nervous system effects, such as fatigue, irritability, nervousness, and impaired memory. Survivors may have these symptoms six weeks after recovery from other symptoms.
What Is the Treatment for Sarin and VX Poisoning?
There are antidotes for nerve gas poisoning with sarin or VX: atropine and pralidoxime chloride. These antidotes must be injected very soon after poisoning occurs.
People exposed to sarin or VX can protect themselves by quickly moving to an area where there is fresh air. Both sarin and VX are heavier than air and settle in low-lying areas. So if outdoors, a person should move immediately to the highest ground possible. If sarin is released within a building, leave the building immediately.
After any sarin or VX exposure, it's important to remove all clothing and wash all skin areas with soap and water. Clothing that must be pulled over the head should be cut off. All clothing should be double bagged in plastic bags and left for professional removal.
Treat eye exposure -- symptoms are burning or blurred vision -- by flushing with fresh water for 10 to 15 minutes.
If sarin or VX is swallowed, do not induce vomiting, and do not give fluids to drink.
In all cases of exposure to nerve gas, seek immediate emergency medical care.
SOURCES: CDC web site: "Facts About Sarin," "Facts About VX." Global Security Newswire: "U.S. Anxiously Shaping Contingency Options for Syrian Chemical Arsenal." Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) web site. New Yorker web site: "The Syrian Sarin Threat." Spector, L. Foreign Policy, Aug. 23, 2011. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATDSR) web site, "Nerve Agents." CNN web site: "Syria Mixing Chemical Warfare Agents, U.S. Official."
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