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5 common chemical weapons agents and the symptoms of exposure

Thursday, November 10, 2016 5:01
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When the international community stepped in to destroy the chemical weapons held by Syria do you think they destroyed all of them? Since then there has been sporadic reports of chemical weapons being used by several factions in the Middle East, where are they getting it from or are they manufacturing it for themselves?

Chemical attacks even when a country is not at war, civil or otherwise, are not unheard of.

On June 27th 1994 the Aum Shinriko cult drove to a residential area of Matsumoto and using a computer system remotely released a cloud of Sarin gas. Their targets were three judges that lived in the area, and they were using it as a trial run for an attack they were planning. 7 people died in the Matsumoto attack, and hundreds were sickened.

Nine months later on March 20th 1995 five members of the cult boarded underground trains in Tokyo. They placed plastic bags of liquid Sarin on the floors, pierced them with sharpened umbrella tips and left the trains. As the liquid evaporated into gas people started feeling ill, stuck down with nausea and vomiting, uncontrollable trembling, foaming at the mouth and convulsions 13 people died and over 3800 were injured, hundreds of them permanently.

Aum Shinrikyo had business holdings worth an estimated $1.5bn including a plant able to manufacture chemical agents. There was evidence of experiments with Q fever, botulin toxins, Ebola and anthrax as well as Sarin.

Sarin like many chemical agents cripples the nervous system and causes a myriad of symptoms from those listed above to bleeding from the nose and mouth, paralysis, coma and death. In its liquid form the amount of liquid that can fit on a pinhead can kill an adult but considerably more is needed when it evaporates into gas.

Mustard gas was used extensively during WWl, and has been used since. Saddam Hussein was reputed to have used it against his own people, and it is believed that up to 100,000 US troops may have been exposed to it during the Gulf conflicts. Many doctors feel it is the cause of the illness known as Gulf war syndrome.

Unless you receive a large dose of mustard gas, which is also known as blister agent, you will not notice any immediate effects. Depending on the dose, at some point between a few hours to a couple of days red spots will appear on the skin, these will quickly turn into yellow blisters which are painful. If the agent has been inhaled blisters will form in the airways, on occasions closing them completely causing the victim to suffocate. In those that do not perish within a few days from massive exposure broncho-pneumonia usually results, causing death by secondary infection.

Low dose exposure causes minor to moderate health issues over a protracted period of time, often years where respiratory tract linings have been damaged, or eyesight affected. Given the range of symptoms it is easy to see why many regard it as the cause of illness in soldiers returning from the Gulf. Eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, repeated respiratory infections,fevers, recurrent fevers and blindness can all result from exposure to this agent.

Cyanide causes histotoxic hypoxia. It prevents the cells of a living organism from taking up and utilising the oxygen available to it. Cellular respiration ceases and organ shut down follows ending in complete respiratory arrest. Cyanide has several forms, but the three most common ones are hydrogen cyanide gas, and the crystalline forms, potassium and sodium cyanide. Exposure cause shortness of breath rapidly followed by seizure, coma and death.

VX is a nerve agent developed at Porton Down chemical weapons research centre, Wiltshire England in 1952. It is normally found in a liquid state.

The film ‘The Rock’ starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage showed it as a green liquid in glass spheres. In actual fact it is an odourless amber coloured liquid. It’s not volatile, but it has excellent adhesive qualities and is all but impossible to remove from the item it has come into contact with. This makes it very viable as a strategic weapon.

Should a military base be contaminated with VX the base is effectively out of use until the VX degrades, which takes a long time as it has an evaporation rate about the same as motor oil. It is absorbed through the skin, takes an hour or so to work and will see the victim drooling, sweating excessively and suffering eye pain and rapid breathing. This leads to paralysis, respiratory failure and death. In its gaseous form it kills rapidly, often without time for the symptoms to develop. The gas is heavier than air and if ever there were an alert regarding it the safest thing to do is get to high ground. If you were unfortunate enough to get VX liquid on you and it is on your clothes rather than your skin the CDC give the following advice:

“remove your clothes carefully by cutting them off and place in a plastic bag which should be sealed.” what I will say is don’t take clothes off over your head as inhaling any at all is a death sentence.

The antidote for VX poisoning is atropine. VX binds to enzymes in the body effectively cutting off the nervous system. Atropine removes it from the enzymes but to do so has be injected directly into the heart, it won’t work any other way.

The USA, Russia and France are the only nations recorded as having VX in their possession. The UK gave theirs to the US in return for a thermonuclear device back in the fifties….no I am not kidding.

Signs of a chemical release:

Signs that a chemical agent has been released are varied and can include smoke or a peculiar odour in the air like (but not limited to) Garlic, Mustard, Geraniums, Burnt almonds, Bleach, and Mown hay.
Any IED used to release an agent will probably seem weak, low yield, and “smokey”. People may be having difficulty breathing, eye irritation, loss of  coordination, nausea, a burning sensation in the nose, throat and lungs. Any of these may be an indicator that an airborne agent is present.

Should you arrive in an area and you notice there are few people around, or you notice dead insects, birds or animals consider that there has been a chemical release, accidental or deliberate, and leave the area in the direction you came in, do not pass through the area.

A Summary of the most common agents.

Symptoms associated with the nerve gases SARIN or VX Gas (no odour).

Headache, runny nose, salivation, pinpoint pupils, difficulty in breathing, tight chest, seizures, convulsions, nausea, and vomiting.

First aid includes:- Remove from the area, treat with Atropine and pralidoxime chloride (2-PAM chloride), diazepam for seizure control

Symptoms of blood agents Hydrogen Cyanide and Cyanogen Chloride (smells like burnt almonds).

Cherry red skin/lips, rapid breathing, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, convulsions, dilated pupils, excessive salivation, gastrointestinal hemorrhage, pulmonary edema, respiratory arrest.

First aid includes:- Remove from the area, pure oxygen, administer a cyanide kit.

Symptoms of blister agents Mustard gas (smells of mustard or garlic)  and Lewisite (Geraniums).

Red,burning skin, blisters, sore throat, dry cough, pulmonary edema, eye damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. Symptoms may be delayed from 2 to 24 hrs.

First aid includes:- Evacuate, wash with with copious water, remove contaminated clothing, support airway and breathing.

Symptoms of choking agents Chlorine (smells like Bleach) and Phosgene gas (smells like mown hay).

Eye and airway irritation, dizziness, tightness in chest, pulmonary edema, painful cough, nausea, and a headache.

First aid includes:- Evacuate, remove contaminated clothing, pure oxygen, patient will need plenty of rest.

With the rise of extremism around the world the possibility of a chemical attack occurring seems more likely than it did in the past. As long as these agents exist there is a chance of them being used, either by governments or other factions hellbent on the destruction of those who disagree with their ideology and opinions. The only way to really ensure that these agents will not be used is to destroy all stocks of them, but as we all know, that’s never going to happen.

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Take care



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