The Facts Behind Sarin

Sarin is a colorless, odorless liquid nerve agent that possesses physical properties similar to those of water. While highly lethal, it evaporates relatively slowly. But once in the environment, it degrades fairly quickly.

What It Does

Sarin disrupts the chemical balance in nerve cells, causing those cells to seize in the "fire" position, which in turn causes muscles to contract and stay locked. Death usually results from suffocation, caused by the stoppage of the diaphram, the main muscle that controls a person's lungs.

Forms

Pure sarin is usually a colorless, odorless, and tasteless liquid. It is most effective as a weapon when dispersed as a fine mist with drops that are nearly invisible to the human eye.

How Lethal Is It?

One milligram of pure sarin is enough to kill a 150-pound person if absorbed into the skin or inhaled within about 15 minutes. Depending on the concentration of sarin and the length of time a person was exposed to the nerve agent, it might take anywhere from two minutes to 18 hours for death to occur.

Recovery from exposure to sarin is possible with prompt injections of atropine. Victims must receive treatment almost immediately following exposure. U.S. military personnel often carry "autoinjectors," a thigh-mounted packet containing the drugs and a spring-loaded needle to inject themselves with the antidote after exposure.

Symptoms of Exposure

Mild exposure to sarin produces blurred vision, drooling, excessive sweating; severe nasal congestion, tightness of the chest and breathing difficulty; nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, twitching of large muscle groups, headache, confusion and drowsiness, and generalized weakness.

Severe symptoms include: involuntary defecation and urination; twitching, jerking, staggering and convulsions; very copious secretions of bodily fluids; cessation of breathing and loss of consciousness.

Protective Measures

A simple gas mask will prevent inhalation of invisible sarin gas. Nonpermeable cloth will prevent exposing a person's skin to the liquid form of sarin or contact through accumulation of the airborne vapors.

How It Can Be Used

Sarin can be delivered via artillery shells, bombs, land mines, and through aerial spraying. Since it is odorless, colorless and tasteless, sarin can also be used to poison food and modest quantities of drinking water.

History

Sarin, also known as GB, is not found naturally in the environment. Nazi scientists developed the weapons developed the weapon for the Germany military, basing its chemistry on pesticides created earlier.

Secret stockpiles of sarin weapons were also built up by the superpowers during the Cold War years.

But while the Germans did not actually release sarin in battle during World War II, Saddam Hussein is believed to have used the chemical — with lethal effect — during his campaign against the Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1980s.

Sarin samples were recovered from the village of Birjinni, which was gassed on Aug. 25, 1988. Sarin is also believed to be one of the gases used in an infamous attack on the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988.

On March 20, 1995, members of a suspected terrorist cult called the Aum Shinrikyo releases sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 20 and injuring more than 3,900 commuters. The nerve agent attack followed a June 1994 attack where a cloud of sarin vapor killed seven injured 200 in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto.

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