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Chemical weapons: the physical effects

September 5, 2013   ·   0 Comments

Sarin Gas

Last year, Washington stated that chemical weapons use was a red line that neither sides fighting in the Syrian conflict should cross. Well, the international community is almost positive that Assad has walked over that line in the sand. So what will happen now?

Will the US pursue a military intervention or just try to send over medical aid? US Secretary of State John Kerry labels the chemical weapons use in Syria as a “moral obscenity.” President Barack Obama calls these WMD “heinous weapons” – but nobody is really talking about what chemical weapons actually do to the body. Perhaps if the short and long-term effects were discussed in the media, more government officials and the American public would push for more medical assistance from the US and its allies.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) defines the weapons as a toxic chemical usually delivered in a bomb. They are also categorized as any “toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action.” Chemical weapons can include choking, blister, blood, or nerve agents. Though we won’t know until the UN’s investigative team has confirmed it, most believe that the chemical used was sarin – a nerve agent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sarin is a human-made agent that is considered the most toxic and rapid acting of chemical weapons. They are almost like insecticides since they work in the same manner and almost have the same harmful effects. Sarin is a clear, colorless and tasteless liquid or gas without any odor. After released, the nerve agent can quickly change from a liquid to a vapor – this allows for maximum exposure to the public. The chemical can enter a human’s system through the eyes, mouth, nose, or skin. It can be also found in the air and water and it can also contaminate food. Even clothing can release the sarin.

When a person is exposed to sarin as a vapor, symptoms usually appear within a few seconds – when exposed to the liquid form, it takes a couple of minutes. Since sarin has no odor, people who have been exposed may not know it at first – this makes them hard for medial aids to treat their symptoms. Nerve agents prevent the body from properly utilizing an enzyme that acts as the body’s “off switch” for muscles and glands. When this happens, the muscles and glands become over-stimulated. This makes the exposed extremely tired and breathing becomes difficult.

The CDC states that when people are exposed to a low or moderate amount of sarin, they may experience: eye pain, blurred vision, drooling and sweating, cough, chest tightness, rapid breathing, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and/or abdominal pain, increased urination, confusion, drowsiness, weakness, headache, slow or fast heartbeat, and low or high blood pressure. While people who are exposed to low amounts of sarin usually survive, individuals who have been exposed to larger amounts are less likely. Of course, a low dose of sarin will still have long-term effects for the exposed. Sarin could possibly affect behavior, brain function, the immune system, and organ function on some level.

The recent videos of Syrians suffering from sarin exposure that have been posted on Facebook and Twitter show Syrians suffering from these symptoms. There is a vivid video of children convulsing and foaming from the mouth. Others are sweating profusely while crying out. Syrian rebels are taped while pouring water from soda bottles and hoses onto their bodies to rid the toxin from their skin. Some of the help are using their bare hands to wipe down the bodies. Most of the sick are stripped down to their underwear so the sarin in their clothes won’t harm them anymore. Other children are lying on the ground, not breathing. The lucky ones have been lifted onto cots where they have been hooked up to oxygen pumps – the aid have to do this manually since they do not have proper medical gear. The uninflected are seen pounding on men and women’s chests while breathing into their mouths and checking for pulses. Of course, we must realize that the Syrians helping these people out are also risking the possibility that they could be exposed to the toxin through breathing the sarin in or getting it on their skin.

Now that we know the affects of sarin, we should now feel a bit more inclined to push greater international media support for all of the sick Syrians who have been exposed to the sarin gas. These videos are likely not staged because the rebels do not have the resources to organize such projects. Will Samantha Powers wake up 20 years from now and declare the Syrian civil war as genocide? According to the UN, 100,000 Syrians have been killed since March 15, 2011. Various opposition groups claim that 80,350 – 106,425 people have been killed. Tens of thousands of protestors have been detained and/or tortured while 28,000 have been reported missing. Since July 2013, the UN stated that the number of Syrian refugees has exceeded 1.8 million. Even though the US is going through economic hard times, it is still important for the US to remain committed to international aid.

Photo Credit: PEO ACWA (PEO, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives).

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Amanda E. Taurino is a journalist that researches and writes on Middle East studies, conflict and conflict resolution, and human security issues. She has earned a MA in International Affairs from GWU's Elliott School of International affairs. During this time, she gained experience working with think tanks and government institutions. She also has a BA in Political Science and English from Temple University.

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