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Nerve Agents: A Quick and Dirty Guide

September 21st, 2007

Although actual attacks are relatively rare, powerful chemicals called nerve agents can be quite nasty if you should ever suffer prolonged exposure to them. This article, originally produced by a Constant Content author writing under the moniker of “joebuck”, provides us with some basic information about the various kinds of nerve agents, including their effects, symptoms of exposure, detection strategies, environmental concerns, and relative difficulty of production.

Nerve agents have been much a part of the news over the last ten years, but not many people are familiar with these mind–bogglingly lethal substances. Originally developed by Nazi scientists in the 1930’s, this type of chemical was originally intended to be used as a pesticide. Although they never actually used them, they found them to be deadly.

The big three – Soman, Sarin and Tabun – are organophosphors, meaning that the basis of their chemistry is a molecule of organic phosphorus. In their weaponized form, these chemicals affect the nervous system by inhibiting the action of cholinesterase, a chemical in your body that allows electrical signals to pass from nerve to nerve. Without this chemical regulator, muscles go into spasm – they contract and cannot relax. Symptoms of exposure to Sarin are: increased salivation, runny nose, constricted pupils, difficulty breathing, vomiting, convulsions, and death within a space of a few minutes. Death is typically caused by suffocation – the muscles around the victim’s lungs and diaphragm can’t relax and the victim can’t inhale. The only antidote to exposure is intramuscular injection of atropine sulfate, which will keep the nervous system going until the nerve agent can be eliminated. The caveat is that it must be administered at the first sign of exposure.

Nerve agents are typically disseminated as a gas or through an aerosol spray. One droplet (about one hundred milligrams) is enough to kill the average sized person in a matter of minutes. Organophosphors are extremely susceptible to contamination by water – the batch that was disseminated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan in 1995 had not been fully dewatered, otherwise the death toll would have been much higher. Under real world conditions, precipitation and ultraviolet light would eventually break down nerve agents. However, this could take weeks, and residue would remain in areas that are not exposed; car door handles, the underside of railings and banisters, etc. Decontamination is usually accomplished by steam cleaning areas and equipment. Survivors must be hosed down and then special chemical wipes are blotted on the exposed areas of skin.

There are as yet no sensors or devices that can rapidly detect the presence of nerve agents in enough time to warn people in an area that they may be under attack. The military trains its soldiers to observe local wildlife; the presence of a great many dead birds on the ground, for example, would be an indicator that nerve agents had been in use. Unfortunately, if an attack were to be made in a well populated area, the first indicator would be many people exhibiting the above symptoms; by then it would be too late to do anything but cordon off the area to prevent more people from entering the contaminated zone.

Although it’s a complex and dangerous operation to make a nerve agent, it can be done. A person who has taken some college level chemistry courses can make small batches from commonly available chemicals with some basic lab equipment. However, it’s a dangerous procedure and without the facilities of a well-equipped lab, the results can be unpredictable. Fortunately, in spite of recent fears and rumors about chemical weapons attacks, actual incidents of dissemination by criminals, terrorists, or other “black hat” practitioners have been very uncommon.

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