- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

Sarin, the deadly nerve gas thought to have been found in a roadside bomb in Baghdad, was first produced by Nazi scientists in 1938 as a pesticide.

Like most other nerve agents, sarin is colorless, odorless and tasteless and diffuses rapidly into the skin and eyes because of its high volatility.

“Sarin is the most volatile of the nerve agents, which means it can easily and quickly evaporate from a liquid into a vapor (gas) and spread into the environment,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site.

“People can be exposed to the vapor, even if they do not come into contact with the liquid form of sarin. Because it evaporates so quickly, sarin presents an immediate but short-lived threat,” the CDC said.

Sarin works by being inhaled or absorbed through the skin or eyes, crippling the respiratory and nervous systems. Even if it does not kill, sarin can result in permanent damage to the lungs, eyes and central nervous system.

The nerve gas is made from widely available chemicals, such as organic phosphorous, sodium fluoride and alcohol.

“But you have to have some chemical and biological know-how to produce it,” said Stephanie Loranger, biology-issues director for the Federation of American Scientists.

Because sarin is heavier than air, it can remain in an area for up to six hours, depending on weather conditions. It will sink to low-lying areas and create a greater exposure hazard there, according to the CDC.

“It takes very little sarin to be toxic … let’s say you have 100 milligrams (of sarin) in a drop. That amount could kill the average person,” Stephanie Loranger, biology-issues director of the Federation of American Scientists, said yesterday.

She noted that specialist knowledge and equipment are needed to make pure and long-lasting sarin.

Because it disperses into the air, sarin has the potential to be used as a weapon of mass destruction. In March 1988, 5,000 residents of the Kurdish city of Halabjah, Iraq, died when Saddam Hussein’s air force attacked the city with poison gases thought to include sarin.

Many other Kurds in Halabjah lost vision and suffered cancer, breathing disorders or birth defects after the assault.

A person’s clothing can release sarin for about 30 minutes after exposure to sarin vapor, which can threaten other people. Sarin can contaminate both water and food.

Death by sarin is brutal.

“In the nervous system, messages are constantly relayed, and sarin prevents messages from being turned off. So muscles and glands are constantly being stimulated,” said Ms. Loranger.

As a result, the CDC says, the glands and muscles may tire and no longer will be able to sustain breathing.

Symptoms of exposure to low or moderate levels of sarin include runny nose, watery eyes, blurred vision, sweating, drowsiness and nausea, according to the CDC.

Even a small drop of sarin on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching where sarin touched the skin. Ms. Loranger said uncontrolled twitching from exposure to larger doses of sarin “results in paralysis, coma and death.”

In high doses, she said, sarin paralyzes the muscles around the lungs and prevents a turn-off of bodily secretions. So, victims suffocate or drown as their lungs fill with mucus and saliva.

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