With the Syrian Civil War prominently in the news recently, we’re reminded of the deadly effects of sarin gas. The loss of over 1400 lives in August 2013 is both tragic and horrific, and it calls to mind that sarin has been used as an agent of terror in the past.
Although the chemical is highly controlled by governments, nothing is absolute and some even speculate that the sarin gas used in Syria was homemade and produced by the opposition. Without getting into the politics of the event, it’s safe to say that sarin is an interesting weapon and continues to have the potential to be center stage in thriller and international conspiracy plots.
Sarin was first developed by Germany in 1938 as a pesticide before its full lethal capabilities were understood. From that point, its use as a chemical weapon began to develop.
In its purest form, sarin is a clear, colorless, tasteless liquid. Exposure to as little as one to 10 mls of liquid sarin on the skin can be fatal—that’s the equivalent of several drops up to less than a teaspoonful. The liquid form, however, is highly volatile and easily turns into a gas at room temperature. Concentrated vapors readily penetrate skin.
Sarin, like other chemical agents of war, attacks the nervous system and prevents the peripheral nerve endings from switching off. The agent causes overstimulation of the nerves that control muscle and glandular functions and inhibits key neurotransmitters. It’s 26 times more deadly than cyanide. Although sarin has a shelf life of only weeks to months, its storage time can be extended with chemical stabilizers.
This lethal agent can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, ingestion, skin contact or eye contact. Interestingly, clothing exposed to concentrated sarin vapors can absorb the gas and then release it for up to 30 minutes following contact. This exposes not only the person wearing the clothing but also those in the immediate vicinity of the victim.
The initial symptoms of sarin exposure are a runny nose, tightness in the chest and constriction of the pupils of the eye. These early symptoms progress to nausea and some drooling as muscle control in the oral and throat area is lost. Without treatment, the symptoms progress to vomiting and loss of bodily functions, twitching and jerking.
Eventually, the person chokes and goes into convulsive spasms. Death usually results from asphyxia (an inability to breath properly) due to loss of control over the muscles involved in breathing.
It has been documented that death from sarin exposure is due to the “Killer B’s” – bronchorrhea (excessive watery sputum) and bronchospasm (a sudden constriction of the airways, making breathing impossible).
The lethal effects exhibit within seconds to minutes of exposure and death can occur within one to 10 minutes. Even at low concentrations, death occurs within one minute after direct ingestion and within a few hours after an indirect exposure. Medical literature on sarin states that diagnosis of exposure to the poison is best detected by looking for the symptoms acronym “SLUDGE”: salivation, lacrimation (excessive tear production), urination, defecation, GI distress and emesis.
People can also absorb a non-lethal dose of sarin. But without immediate medical treatment with antidotes (pralidoxime, biperiden or atropine), permanent neurological damage may result.
The proper treatment for sarin exposure includes immediately removing the source of exposure, flushing the eyes with water for five to 10 minutes, quickly isolating any vomited fluids as contaminants, administering one of the antidotes, removing and isolating exposed clothing, and washing the skin with generous amounts of soap and water.
In the proper genre, a writer could develop an exiting scene in which a victim is exposed to, and painfully dies from, sarin gas. The quick actions of either the protagonist or the antagonist would determine if the victim lived or died and establish the path in which the story unfolds.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
Chemical (and biological) weapons, like “conventional” weapons can be targeted, un-targeted, and aimed at a few or a lot of people. The recent Syrian attacks were un-targeted to a large number of people; the attackers did not care who they affected. Nazi Germany used targeted chemical attacks against whole classes of people on a massive scale. Maybe a difference between murder and terrorism is whether an individual is the real target, even if many around him are also killed as is likely in a cruise missile strike. Often it is difficult for authorities to determine if someone was really targeted or just unlucky, and politics may influence the answer. While a good story may leave to the very end whether a triggering event early in the story was murder or terrorism, the reader must finally understand the perhaps twisted logic behind what happened and the resulting actions of the characters.
Interesting distinction between the terms “Murder” and “Terrorism”, Walt. I’ll have to remember that for a future blog and maybe for plot details in a future novel. Thanks for your comments!
In class (BA in Homeland Security) we learn more and more about terrorism each course. Not all murders are terrorism and not all terrorism involves murder. I think your example might fall under the statement that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It will depend on which side of the missile strike you were on.
Interesting point you make – it all depends on which end of the missile you’re looking at how you perceive your world.