Manufactured Bane of Humanity: Sarin Gas

Informative Video Presentation regarding Sarin Gas by SciShow

 Sarin gas is one of the deadliest substances in the world. Sarin is an odorless and colorless that is excellent at what it does, and what it does is to kill. It is composed of a phosphorus atom bonded to a fluorine atom, two oxygen atoms, and a methyl group. A methyl group is a carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms. One of the oxygen atoms is bonded to a carbon atom, which is in turn bonded to two methyl groups and another hydrogen atom.

molecular structure of sarin

molecular structure of sarin

Sarin can be made from difluoride methylphosphonate, dichloride methylphosphonate, sodium fluoride, and isopropyl alcohol. The latter two items are easily obtainable, which has perpetuated the erroneous belief that sarin can be made by anyone; in fact, it is extremely difficult to synthesize and is far more likely to kill its creator than it is to kill any potential targets.

But how does sarin actually work? Sarin is a nerve agent and like most nerve agents, it works by inhibiting the function of acetylcholinesterase, or AChE. AChE is an enzyme, meaning its function is to break down other molecules in the body. Specifically, AChE breaks down acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter released by the nervous system which binds to muscles’ receptors in order to stimulate activity. AChE then approaches acetylcholine and destroys it to stop muscle activity, breaking the synapses of acetylcholine into inactive fragments. The reason sarin is so devastating is because it combines with the serine in the esterase site of the AChE, rendering the enzyme unreactive. Because the acetylcholine is no longer being broken down by the AChE, acetylcholine remains in the receptor and continuously stimulates the muscles, forcing them to contract uncontrollably. Eventually, the victim is asphyxiated to death after the respiratory system and other muscle-dependent organ system begin to fail.

Diagrams of the specific chemical reactions which occur with nerve agents in the human body

Diagrams of the specific chemical reactions which occur with nerve agents in the human body

sarin diagram 2

Diagram of the specific chemical reactions which occur with nerve agents in the human body

Gerhard Schrader

Gerhard Schrader

 

Sarin gas has had a long history of being used as a chemical weapon even though it was only recently discovered. In fact, it was only synthesized in 1937 by German chemist, Gerhard Schrader, trying to create a stronger, better pesticide, according to The Atlantic. Although it was not used during World War II by the Nazis, it gained its infamous reputation of being one of the most lethal nerve agents. This prompted the production of sarin gas in many countries as a potent instrument of war.

Eventually, in 1993, the Chemical Weapons Conventions (CWC) was ratified, banning the production, stockpiling, and usage of sarin gas and other chemical weapons. This proposal was ratified by 162 countries throughout the globe, with notable exceptions being North Korea and Egypt.

A map showing the countries which signed the Chemical Weapons Conventions. Green indicates that the CWC was signed and ratified while red indicates non-signatory countries.

A map showing the countries which signed the Chemical Weapons Conventions. Green indicates that the CWC was signed and ratified while red indicates non-signatory countries.

However, even though the production and stockpiling of sarin gas is heavily regulated, there still have been sarin gas attacks in the past. According to the New York Times, one of the most gruesome sarin gas attacks was in 1995: a domestic Japanese terrorist group had bombed a Tokyo subway station, killing 8 people and hospitalizing more than 4,700 others. Another recorded incident was in 2013, when the Syrian government fired several rockets filled with sarin gas on rebels and civilians. Due to its ability to kill quickly, painfully and indiscriminately, sarin is considered one of the most heinous weapons that have been created. However, in some senses, sarin is better than other chemical weapons, such as Agent Orange or even napalm, as there are relatively few after effects.

The lethal dose of sarin gas is half a milligram for an average sized person and it takes only 1 to 10 minutes after exposure to die according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, there are no after effects if victims are treated properly and victims exposed to small amounts of sarin gas exposure usually recover fairly rapid. On average, survivors usually make a full recovery only after a few weeks. In addition, there are numerous ways to treat sarin gas poisoning, most often atropine, a cheap and generic drug.  Sarin also does not have any chronic environmental effects as the substance breaks down quickly after being introduced to the atmosphere.

molecular structure of atropine

molecular structure of atropine

In spite of this, nearly every country in the world has renounced the use of sarin, and all other nerve gases, as an acceptable military tactic. This is due entirely to the chemistry behind the weapon, as it is the chemical reactions that give rise to the horrific effects of sarin. These chemical reactions cause death in the most graphic way possible; so graphic, in fact, that even the Nazis refused to use sarin in World War II after they developed it. Sarin was outlawed because the chemistry that birthed it was simply too effective, and too gruesome, for the world to handle.

About the Authors: BCABe4 is an Advanced Chemistry Project Group and is focused on understanding the chemistry behind chemical weapons. BCABe4 is composed of Hee-Sung Kim, Sandy Pecht, and Erik Wu. They are all students of the Bergen County Academies and are in the Academy in the Advancement of Science and Technology.

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2 thoughts on “Manufactured Bane of Humanity: Sarin Gas

  1. Pingback: Whose sarin? | Follow Me Here...

  2. Pingback: Manufactured Bane of Humanity: Ricin | BCA Chemistry

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