Just when I thought I was done with toxins for a while… U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that autopsies of victims in Syria are testing positive for the presence of Sarin, a powerful and volatile nerve agent created around the time of WWII in Germany.
Nerve agents fall into a category of substances known as anticholinesterase inhibitors. These chemicals are known best to the public as either nerve gas or insecticides.
Here’s what you need to know about sarin and other agents like it:
- Anticholinesterase is necessary for proper nerve function by regulating how much gets used. Inhibiting anticholinesterase results in overstimulation of various muscles, most importantly, the ones we use to breathe. Think (very coarsely) of the cartoon about getting your finger stuck in an electrical outlet, and you can’t stop jerking. Something like that is occurring on a cellular level inside you.
- Sarin is powerful. It’s 500 times more toxic than cyanide poisoning and can kill you in a minute. It rapidly gets converted from liquid to gas forms, which makes it even more dangerous. You don’t even need to touch the stuff; inhalation gets it well inside of you.
- This class of toxins makes you overload in fluid production. Although initial symptoms include small pupils (miosis), chest tightness and an excessively runny nose, soon to follow will be excessive production and flow of saliva, tears, urine and stool, and vomiting. Death typically occurs by lung spasm and production of lots of watery sputum, leading to asphyxiation (inability to breathe). Typically, no physical wounds will be noted.
- There’s a high rate of secondary contamination, so if this gets on your clothes and skin, and you’re subsequently touched by an unsuspecting helper, it will be passed on.
- Fortunately, there’s an antidote, but you must receive it rapidly (The treatment is use of atropine plus pralidoxime, aka 2-PAM).
- Sarin has been used in wars against the Kurds and against U.S. troops fighting in Iraq. During wartime, it can be weaponized and distributed via aerosols, with subsequent inhalation or skin contact.
So that’s the short version. It’s a horrible way to die and an effective way to commit mass murder. This should help understand some of the international uproar about a government that would do such a thing to its people, assuming that proves to be the case.