On Sunday, the Obama administration indicated evidence that the Syrian regime has relied on chemical warfare to quell the current insurrection. In what could be the gravest chemical weapons attack in 25 years, the Assad administration reportedly used the nerve toxin sarin to wipe out 1,400 insurgents and civilians in their sleep. Anger and frustration aside, the purported attacks have inspired confusion, with countless people asking themselves how a chemical agent can do such horrifying damage.
According to Agence France-Presse, sarin is a nerve agent developed by Nazi scientists in 1938. Originally derived from a pesticide, the odorless, paralyzing toxin has been used extensively by terror organization as well as genocidal regimes to kill thousands. Inhalation of about 200 milligrams results in death within minutes, leaving no time for symptoms to develop.
"Sarin is 26 times more deadly than cyanide gas. Just a pinprick-sized droplet will kill a human," World Health Organization (WHO) researchers wrote in their Guide To Biological and Chemical Threats. “Speed in providing medical care to affected persons is essential.”
Fatal exposure aside, moderate to severe exposure may cause blurred vision, confusion, vomiting, excessive sweating, and even coma. Damage caused to eyes, lungs, and nervous system may be permanent. Depending on weather conditions, the gas may linger in the air for up to six hours.
Sarin figured in the infamous Halabja massacre of 1988, when the Iraqi regime used a cocktail of noxious agents to kill 5,000 Kurds and injure 65,000. Another example is 1995 Tokyo subway attack, when the Japanese cult and terror group Aum Shinrikyo used the gas to kill 13 of the 6,252 poisoned commuters. A diverse arsenal can be used to deliver the toxin.
According to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, chemical nerve agents like sarin are the most toxic and rapidly acting of all known chemical warfare compounds. The agents’ mechanism of action and biological effects are similar to those of organophosphates, a type of insecticide. By inhibiting an enzyme that acts as an “off-switch” for glands and muscles, the toxin precludes essential inactivity, causing the body to die from exertion.