- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

The war with Iraq has begun. Coalition forces are now fighting to liberate the Iraqi people and to rid the world of the threat of terrible agents that Iraqi scientists have worked on.

''Weapons of mass destruction." The phrase says it all. Over the years, Saddam Hussein is believed to have built up a terrible arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. He already has unleashed them against his own people, and he could be preparing to use them against coalition soldiers and civilians. While the symptoms and effects of the agents heavily depend on the method and amount of exposure, here's a rundown of what agents Iraq is believed to possess, their typical effects and their possible treatments.

Chemical agents

• Mustard gas: A potent and insidious weapon. It causes skin burns and blisters, eye irritation and respiratory problems, including coughing and bronchitis. Those symptoms appear some time after exposure between two and 24 hours. There is no specific antidote, although mustard gas disables far more than it kills. Iraq has used mustard gas in the past, and some units of the Iraqi army are believed to be equipped with it.

• Ricin: Poison made from castor beans. It can be inhaled, ingested or swallowed. After a few hours, symptoms include nausea, breathing difficulties and aching muscles, followed by internal bleeding and organ failures. Death follows between 36 and 48 hours of exposure. There is no known antidote.

• Sarin: Nerve toxin also known as "GB." Exposure can come via skin or eye contact, inhalation, or ingestion of poisoned water. Effects, which are almost immediate after exposure to the vapor form, include small, pin-point pupils, blurred vision, rapid breathing, followed by convulsions, paralysis and death from respiratory failure. Antidotes are available, but they must be applied quickly. High exposures are almost certain to cause death.

• Tabun: Nerve toxin similar to sarin, also known as "GA." Exposure is possible through inhalation, skin or eye contact and drinking poisoned water. Symptoms are similar to sarin. Antidotes are available, but they must be given soon after exposure.

• VX: Considered to be the most potent nerve agent of them all. Exposure is most likely through inhalation, and skin or eye contact. Symptoms are similar to sarin and tabun. Treatments are available, but must be applied quickly. U.S. military officials believe that some of Saddam's Republican Guard units are equipped with VX-filled munitions.

Biological agents

• Aflatoxin: Aflatoxins are made by some species of fungus. Best known for their ability to cause cancer, particularly in the liver. Their level of lethality in the short term is not clear.

• Anthrax: Caused by the bacteria bacillus anthracis. For inhalation anthrax (the most lethal form), cold- and flu-like symptoms begin within seven days of exposure, followed by shock and respiratory failure. U.S. soldiers have been vaccinated against it, and antibiotics are also effective. While cutaneous anthrax (a skin infection) is rarely fatal, inhalation anthrax could potentially be quite deadly.

• Clostridium botulinum toxin: The nerve toxin that causes botulism. Symptoms commonly begin between about 12 and 36 hours of ingestion and include blurred vision, slurred speech and general muscle weakness, followed by paralysis and death. An antitoxin is available, and if administered early, it can greatly reduce effects.

• Ebola: The terrifying virus that causes Ebola hemorrhagic fever. Symptoms usually begin between two and 21 days of exposure to either the virus itself or fluids from an infected individual. Those sickened experience flu-like symptoms followed by internal and external bleeding, and often, death. There is no known antidote.

• Smallpox: One of the most frightening of all biological agents. After an incubation period of between 12 and 17 days, flu-like symptoms are followed by an outbreak of a rash. Smallpox will kill one-third of the unvaccinated people it infects. Pre- or quick post-exposure inoculation is the only effective treatment.

With the coalition troops in harm's way, committed to "no outcome but victory," we hope that Saddam fails in any attempt to use any of those horrific weapons.

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