Assad’s Chemical Weapons: How Does Sarin Work?

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Kenneth Eward / BioGrafx / Getty Images

Molecular model of sarin, a nerve agent used in chemical weapons

The Obama Administration says it will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s Bashar Assad amid reports the dictator has stored the ingredients needed to make sarin. What is sarin, and how dangerous is it?

Sarin, a man-made, fast-acting and highly toxic nerve agent, was originally developed in Germany in 1938 to be used as a pesticide. But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is far more potent. Sarin can be mixed in liquid to poison drinking water and food, or released as a gas, where it may pose greater risk to a larger number of people.

Victims generally have no idea when they’re being exposed. Sarin is a clear, odorless, colorless and tasteless liquid that evaporates at about the same rate as water when released, making it one of the more volatile nerve agents. It was used in the 1988 Halabja massacre in which Saddam Hussein ordered the release of sarin gas over the Kurdish city and killed at least 5,000 civilians over three days, as well as in a Tokyo subway terrorist attack in 1995 that killed 13 people. Its volatility means sarin is generally mixed just before it’s used and, once made, stored in liquid form. Sarin is also highly corrosive and needs to be stored in specially designed containers that resist breakdown.

(MORE: Gas Mask: Why Is Chemical Warfare Obama’s ‘Red Line’ in Syria?)

Within a few seconds of sarin-gas exposure, victims will start to experience eye pain, drooling, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea and irregular heart rates. Clothing from victims exposed to the gas will continue to release toxic vapors for 30 minutes, causing more people to come into contact with it. For those exposed to the liquid form of sarin, symptoms can occur anytime from a few minutes to 18 hours after consumption. If exposed to a large amount of sarin in either gas or liquid form, victims can experience more severe and painful symptoms such as convulsions, paralysis, loss of respiratory functions and even death.

As with other nerve agents, sarin attacks the nervous system and disrupts the body’s ability to control muscle and gland function. This causes overstimulation of certain metabolic functions — muscles continue to twitch to exhaustion, and breathing revs up to an unmanageable pace — eventually resulting in the loss of all bodily functions. The CDC says even a small drop of liquid sarin on the skin will cause sweating and muscle-twitching on contact.

(MORE: Bashar Assad’s Chemical-Weapons Calculus)

If only exposed to a small dose, most people can recover. Health officials recommend moving to an outdoor area if exposed indoors, in order to disperse the gas and lower the dose of exposure. Removing contaminated clothing as quickly as possible and washing exposed areas with soap and water can also reduce risk of more severe symptoms. If exposed patients are treated immediately with an antidote that counteracts the toxin in a hospital, the CDC says they will likely survive without neurological problems lasting more than one to two weeks. However, severe and untreated exposure is likely to result in death, making sarin one of the more potent nerve agents.

[via the CDC]

PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion, Bloody Civil War

25 comments
MichaelFRivero
MichaelFRivero

The official story from the US Government is that Syria's Assad invited United Nations Chemical Weapons inspectors into Syria, and on the very day they finally arrived, launched a chemical weapons attack, not against the leaders of the hired mercenaries, but against innocent women and children only a few miles from where the inspectors are staying.

And if you believe THAT one, I have some of Saddam's nuclear weapons to sell you!

This is a classic false flag attack, to frame Assad and justify invasion by the United States Government, which to be historically fair gassed that church full of women and children down in Waco, Texas with CS gas, which is banned for use against enemy troops in time of war, and lacks moral standing to point fingers at anyone else.

LauroAndrea
LauroAndrea

I can never forget that picture of that dead mother and baby in Halabja everytime I come across the word SARIN. Apparently its also a heavy gas and goes downward while the Kurds hid in their basements where they were more vulnerable.

If Assad does take this path, there will be no mercy for him. Among his peers or in history. Evil truly is a choice.

AlanTraceyWootton
AlanTraceyWootton

It was always my understanding that Sarin was basically an insecticide for humans. Very lethal. I would have liked for Sasha Sifferlin to tell us more stuff like "a 500 pound bomb, on a still day, kills 10 square miles" but that's hard. Sci Am would do that - with graphs & stats.Meanwhile, are we thinking of this from the Left where it's "just another ploy to create a war"? Or, from the Right where "there's a line that cannot be crossed"? Or from the Left where 'all chemicals are evil'? Or, from the right where ...It's confusing. Interesting.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

"If only exposed to a small dose, most people can recover."

Keep in mind a "small amount" is is 15mg or a spot of sarin 1/5 the size of a water drop. The standard lethal dose for 50% of people exposed is 75mg of liquid. Also "recovery" is pretty relative since expoure to less then 1/10 of a mg of sarin can produce PERMANENT long term neurological damage.

PlumbLine
PlumbLine

Put your life into the care of Jesus Christ in these troubled times......

Mark 13:19-20....19 For there will be greater anguish in those days than at any time since God created the world. And it will never be so great again. 20 In fact, unless the Lord shortens that time of calamity, not a single person will survive. But for the sake of his chosen ones he has shortened those days.

rorywong654
rorywong654

USA you are doing a good job,keep drum up the chemical weapon on Syria just like you did on Iraq.People around the world will admire you with your shameless

jethromayham6
jethromayham6

Even better than MJ, a strong cup of Lipton tea rubbed all over the body and then drink what is left over, You should move to a new location if possible and remain naked in the sun for at least 4 hours.

JoseGonzales
JoseGonzales

Antidote for sarin gas is marijuana, if smoked it is much faster acting that valium.

ArabiSouri
ArabiSouri

Bravo Times, just what the world needs: Libya 2.0 Iraq 3.0, Afghanistan 4.0,,,,, Vietnam 40.0.. now Syria. How similar is today to 2003 with drums up for wars to save the economy back home in search for the WMDs in another sovereign nation that had 0 (zero) national debt, no Rothschild banks, and doesn't take orders from Washington, London or Paris, or even Tel Aviv like the others.. so let's turn it into a failing state, destroy the infrastructure to create jobs for the huge corporations struggling at home in staying up, and in the meantime just distract the public from the terrible, horrible, crazy economic crisis with countries like the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Greece.. struggling with public debt and borrowing from Rothschild banks, forcing their people to live in austerity and deteriorating education, healthcare, pension, wages systems but can always find money to finance wars and Al Qaeda fighters under whatever names they like to label them, once Taliban, then Al Qaeda, then Boko Haram (Nigeria), Abu Sayyaf (Philippines), Jama Islamiyeh (Indonesia).. Freedom Fighters in Libya and now in Syria they're Free Syrian Army.. 

Over 20 months we're warning your leaders that Syria is not like Libya and definitely not like Iraq, but sadly they don't have the options to decide, they receive orders and execute it. Ask them to send their own children for these wars. In 1983 the US Marines had an experience with the Syrians in Beirut and 241 Marines were sent back to Washington in coffins wrapped with US flags, this time they'll be wrapped with the real flags they died for: Al Qaeda & Star of David. 

Wonder if there's any more Sheeple who would buy the Syrian WMDs this time and if they'll exceed in numbers or be less than those in 2003.

Sparrowdancer
Sparrowdancer

Although not mentioned here, the key ingredient in Sarin is fluoride, the same toxic substance that our own government is pouring into the drinking water of approximately 73% of the US population - all being done while "officials" point fingers of guilt at leaders in other countries. 

JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

Assad's chemical weapons? It is nothing more than the Clinton's twist just to save her skin from her worst life time debacle. She wrongly advised regime change in Syria just to please Saudi, Iraqi, Libyans and Turkey's Zihadis, who wanted to establish their Sunni Empire in Syria. Clinton thought it will be a good idea to change Assad and replace with another Arab puppet to cut Iran in size. But she failed in her dream and now raising the similar unfounded scenario, Bush-Cheney had raised prior to invade Iraq. And, if Turkey-NATO will start bombing, who will stop Assad not to use his weapons for his self defense?   

DavidSilva
DavidSilva

Sounds a lot like GHW Bush lambasting Saddam Hussein in the UN for using "Chemical weapons on his own people".

Of course the fact came out after that that GHW Bush and the CIA sold Hussein the chemical weapons in the first place.  USA intelligence is aware of Assad's chemical weapons, probably because they sold it to him in the first place.

If history has proven anything, it is that War profiteers have zero conscience and compassion, and will say or do anything to get a war going, which typically dramatically increases profits for corporations like Exxon, Bechtel, and Halliburton. Ask Colin Powell and the bush administration where those WMD's are after the trillion dollar fiasco in Iraq. 

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@rorywong654 The big difference here is that Iraq stated they had no chemical weapons and the inspectors said they had no reason to believe other wise because they could find no active infrastructure. 

Syria has openly admitted that they have active sarin weapons, they have publicly disclosed facilities for loading said sarin into warheads and trade records show that they have purchased equipment needed to handle sarin and somin.

Armagedon
Armagedon

@Sparrowdancer true, what people don't realise is that mass medicating the water supply can be dropped tomorrow and those who want their daily dose of "therapeutic" fluoride can get it from their toothpaste, twice a day and they will have no cavities, but nope too lazy so fill the water supply with left overs from various industrial processes because we are the government and we know what is best for you, you cannot look after yourself you need us....BS governments are full of it.

coffeeincluded
coffeeincluded

@Sparrowdancer And did you know that one of the key ingredients in regular old table salt--which you need to survive--is chlorine, the key ingredient in the incredibly toxic chlorine gas? Seriously, one of the first rules in chemistry is that different elements have radically different functions and effects when they're bound to different compounds. The reason you can see is because light hitting your eye causes a tiny change in conformation of the retinal (vitamin A) bound to your photoreceptors, which triggers a chain reaction in your photoreceptor cells that ends with a neuron telling your brain, "Hey, I see light!" Seriously, go study some biology and chemistry, it's fascinating.Basically, fluoride in drinking water is nothing like fluoride in sarin. Fluoride in drinking water works by helping to reinforce your enamel and prevent tooth decay.

fyi
fyi

@Sparrowdancer Fluoride is found in many substances that have many uses.  Some are toxic, horrible things to life, and some are inert.  In the case you mention, fluoride has been proven to help prevent tooth decay, and is supplied to large areas via water systems to help the general population in this prevention in a controlled way.  (See McDonagh M. S., et al, (2000) "Systematic review of water fluoridation". British Medical Journal 321 (7265): 855–859.)

jethromayham6
jethromayham6

@DavidSilva Yes, Georgie is pf the worst kind. He was rich prior to becoming a President but when his term was over, he was super  sper rich. Now he is sequestered at his ranch enjoying everything. There is no need for him to leve the ranch and thus he is contented. His security people for life even get second dibs if u know what I mean.

rorywong654
rorywong654

@SwiftrightRight @rorywong654 I didn't say Syria don't have the weapon. What I mean is USA use it as a excuse to intervene stating Syria will use it on her own people.Tell me which country don't have chemical weapon.

Sparrowdancer
Sparrowdancer

@coffeeincluded @Sparrowdancer - My background is in laboratory science, including chemistry, bacteriology, microscopic analysis, hematology, oncology, pathology, electroencephalography.  I would suggest that YOU go do some studying.  The fluoride in drinking water is just as deadly as any fluorides, anywhere, and fluoridated drinking water has resulted in deaths (Hooper Bay, Alaska, for instance, and deaths in dialysis patients).  There are likely many other deaths, however no one tests for fluoride poisoning on a routine basis.  Fluoride poisoning kills outright by either cardiac arrest or acute kidney failure by way of acute tubular necrosis, and it might take days for either to happen, by which time the primary fluoride bolus will have left the body.   And, for your information, fluoride also negatively impacts vision.

Sparrowdancer
Sparrowdancer

@fyi @Sparrowdancer  - fluoride has never been "proven" to prevent tooth decay.  Do some homework.  If there were any proof in its efficacy, it would be abundantly apparent in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which has been almost 100% fluoridated for some time.  Instead, Kentucky leads the nation in the dental cavities and total loss of teeth.  The only thing fluoride has been proven to do is block thyroid function.  German and Austrian scientists proved this back in the 1930s. 

TravStev
TravStev

Australia for one modern/capable force...

Keep in mind that having the weapon is also different from having the capability

op
op

What are you on about?  There is no fluoride ion in Sarin.  It's an organophosphorous compound with a covalently bound fluorine atom.


Furthermore, the "key ingredient" is the Sarin molecule, which causes muscle spasms by inhibiting acetylcholine turnover.  It's got nothing to do with fluoride poisoning.

fyi
fyi

@Sparrowdancer @fyi Perhaps there are multiple reasons behind the high cavity and loss of teeth counts in Kentucky, one must be open minded.  Dentists across the country use fluoride for good reason; it helps prevent cavity formation.  There is much evidence to back these findings.  There was some great science done in the 1930s, but I'll take modern medicine's word for it since there have been plenty of advances in the past eight decades, including those involving dosing levels of fluoride in the human system.  To reiterate coffeeincluded's statement below, to declare one elemental component of a particularly horrible toxin as something terrible in all chemical applications and situations goes against the findings of Chemistry.  I've done plenty of homework, and will continue to do so because one should never stop learning.