On April 4th reports came out of the city of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, Syria that an airstrike conducted by the Russian-backed Syrian Army was suspected of being a chemical weapons attack which released what is believed to be a nerve agent chemical weapon known as Sarin (GB2) resulting in up to 200 civilians caught in the crossfire being injured or killed. A day later both Syria and Russia vehemently denied they dropped chemical weapons, blaming the resulting chemical incident on the opposition forces themselves saying that they struck a terrorist warehouse that was storing chemical weapons for use in Syria and export into northern Iraq. This explanation provided by Syria and Russia now has many chemical weapons experts and chemists crying foul. Even the senior fellow at the U.S.-based Middle East Institute who has been pushing for U.S.-led meddling in the protracted and complicated Syrian Civil War, Charles Lister, made this statement “First of all, nobody in their right mind would ever store both components of a binary nerve agent in the same building. And secondly, even if they were stored together and then targeted, blowing them up would not result in any active nerve agent — it’s chemically impossible.”
The greatest disservice any nation can do to itself, is to underestimate its enemies. With that being stated, I am not a chemist, I hold no degree in chemistry, and only grasp the basics of this sorcery. This report will attempt to provide the lay man with a sort of guide to this weaponized science.
What is Sarin gas?
Sarin gas is a man-made chemical weapon which is classified as a ‘nerve agent’ by the Center for Disease (CDC). Extremely toxic and rapid acting, sarin was developed in Germany in 1938 as a pesticide. After seeing its accidental effects on the living, it was cultivated into a chemical weapon of war and terror. Signs and symptoms of sarin exposure encompass nausea, vomiting, chest pain and tightness followed by an uncontrollable cough and rapid breathing. Continued exposure to large amounts results in painful convulsions and paralysis which leads to the victim drowning in their own saliva and vomit as respiratory failure kicks in.
The experts at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also provides a more grisly scientific and in-depth dissertation of this man-made savagery:
When exposed to a high dose of nerve agent, the muscular symptoms are more pronounced. The victim may suffer convulsions and lose consciousness. To some extent, the poisoning process may be so rapid that earlier mentioned symptoms may never have time to develop.
Muscular paralysis caused by nerve agents also affects the respiratory muscles. Nerve agents also affect the respiratory centre of the central nervous system. The combination of these two effects is the direct cause of death. Consequently, death caused by nerve agents is a kind of death by suffocation.
The figure shows examples of poisoning results caused by different doses of sarin vapour. In similarity to other poisons, different individuals are more or less sensitive to nerve agents. The figure shows that the lethal dose for the most sensitive individuals is about 70 mg.min/m3 and about twice this level for more resistant people.
The toxic effect depends on both the concentration of nerve agent in the air inhaled (C) and the time of exposure (t). In extremely high concentrations there is a simple relationship, C t, which gives a certain toxic effect. Inhalation of sarin vapour with a concentration of 100 mg/m3 for one minute gives the same result as inhalation of 50 mg/m3 for two minutes. However, at low concentrations this relationship does not apply since the human body is capable of some degree of detoxification. In order to obtain a corresponding effect, it is then necessary to have relatively longer periods of exposure. The values given in the table for toxicity of nerve agents apply to high concentrations.
To break this down to in Special Forces medic terms, “this is a shitty, messy, violently painful way to die!” Where the victim painfully loses all muscle and motor function and drowns agonizingly in their own fluids pouring into their lungs from large doses of this nerve agent. The victim feels every second of this excruciating pain until death takes them.
The warehouse that Russia and Syria claimed to have housed chemical weapons that they bombed contained is suspected of being a Binary Sarin Chemical Warfare Munition. Yet, what is a ‘binary chemical warfare munition? Chemical weapons specialist and managing director of Strongpoint Security based in the United Kingdom, Dan Kaszeta explains that a chemical binary munition is:
A device designed to produce a binary chemical warfare agent in flight. Binary munitions, such as rockets, aerial dropped bombs, and artillery shells, are designed to create the conditions for the necessary binary reaction shortly before dispersal. One example of a binary munition (and one of the only ever fielded) was the US M687 artillery shell. This was a 155 mm artillery shell that contained two different canisters. One canister contained DF and the other contained isopropylalcohol and an additive, isopropylamine. The shock of the firing from the 155mm howitzer would rupture the barrier between the two canisters, and the spin of the warhead was specially designed to mix the components.
Yet, could this type of process be churned up by warplanes dropping multiple bombs on a warehouse suspected of holding all these precursors under it roof churn these chemicals up enough to create a possible Sarin nerve agent cloud of that size or at all? Kaszeta echoed Mr. Lister’s “chemically impossible sentiment by stating simply that the Syrian/Russian version of this story is “highly implausible.” Kaszeta in an interview with CNN broke it down even further saying; “All the nerve agents used in the Syrian conflict so far have been binary nerve agents, which are mixed from different components within a few days of use. This is done because of the difficulties of handling agents such as Sarin, which has a very short shelf life.” — “Nerve agents are the result of a very expensive, exotic, industrial chemical process — these are not something you just whip up.”
It certainly seems that science is dictating how chemical reactions are occurring, and this is only one chemist and chemical weapons expert’s opinion. Yet, regardless of who perpetrated what in this recent loss of life and suffering, an attack involving some sort of chemical agent did in fact occur and it seems with Syria’s history of chemical weapons use. These types of attacks could continue as the quagmire that is Syria grinds on.
Featured image courtesy of Reuters