Although first developed as a possible pesticide in Germany in 1936, tabun quickly became known as an excellent chemical warfare agent and was made on an industrial scale by Germany during World War II. It was the first of the so-called G-Series nerve agents developed during that time.
Tabun is among the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents. Since tabun is much easier to make than other nerve agents, countries that develop nerve agent capability but lack advanced industrial facilities often start with tabun.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq used nerve agents against Iranian ground forces and tabun was among the agents used. Today, international production is highly controlled, and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 has outlawed the stockpiling of this chemical.
Tabun, by appearance, can be deceiving. Although an extremely lethal chemical, it presents as a clear, colorless, and tasteless liquid with a faint fruity odor. Tabun readily mixes with water, so it could be used to poison water and water-based liquids. Since tabun contamination is possible on a small or a grand scale, it could be utilized for an intimate murder scene or be used by a thriller writer to create scenes of catastrophic destruction.
The toxic effects of tabun occur even if the contaminated liquid is not consumed. Merely having the chemical come into contract with skin can be deadly. Even with its distinctive faint fruity odor, that may not be noticeable enough to warm victims that tabun is present.
Tabun transforms into a vapor when heated, and the vapor can easily be absorbed into clothing materials. When fabrics have been exposed to the vapor, the clothing releases the toxic vapors for hours after and can be deadly to anyone wearing the clothing.
If tabun is released into the air (either as a liquid spray or a vapor), exposure can be through skin contact, eye contact or by inhalation. An interesting fact is that tabun vapor is heavier than air, so it will create a greater hazard in low-lying areas by replacing the air.
The extent of poisoning caused by tabun depends on the amount and form of tabun to which the person was exposed. Symptoms can appear within a few seconds after exposure to tabun vapors and within a few minutes after exposure to the liquid form.
The symptoms of tabun exposure include nervousness/restlessness, pupil contraction, a runny nose, excessive salivation, and difficulty in breathing. The chemical’s toxic effects interfere with the normal operation of an enzyme that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. In effect, the body’s glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated after exposure to tabun. After a time, they tire and can no longer function.
Initial symptoms include a slow heartbeat, drooling, chest tightness and sweating with rapid progression to convulsions, total lung function shutdown, and loss of bladder and bowel control. Even a small drop of tabun on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching where the chemical touched the skin.
Recovery from tabun exposure is possible with treatment and life support measures. There are a couple of antidotes available (pralidoxime and deazapralidoxime), but they must be used quickly to be effective.
Tabun is an intriguing chemical, somewhat easy to make for a seasoned chemist, and can be a dramatic addition to a thriller or murder mystery plot.
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