Why Being Gassed by Sarin Might Be the Worst Way to Die
The residents of Khan Sheikhoun probably thought they were in for just another ordinary day of civil war when they woke up early in the morning of April 4 to the whine of approaching Syrian Air Force Su-22 attack jets. The town of around fifty thousand people was situated west of Aleppo in Idlib Province, long a stronghold of rebel groups opposing the government of Bashar al-Assad since 2011. Artillery and air attacks were a horribly routine aspect of daily life there, as they are in many parts of Syria, divided by numerous warring factions.
Residents later reported that the munitions dropped by the jets released clouds of poisonous gas. Even this was hardly unheard of in Idlib Province. Even while Assad handed over his stockpiles of mustard gas and deadly nerve agents, government helicopters launched at least a dozen chlorine-gas attacks on communities in Idlib Province alone in 2014 and 2015. However, while chlorine gas causes horrifying respiratory problems, particularly in children and the elderly, it usually killed “only” a handful of people per attack, if any.
However, rescuers arriving from outside Khan Sheikhoun beheld an unexpectedly nightmarish sight: more than six hundred civilians lying paralyzed in their homes or helpless on the ground, limbs convulsing, saliva foaming from their noses and mouths as they gasped for breath. Local first responders—the lucky ones that hadn’t died or fallen violently ill when arriving on the scene—were frantically spraying the twitching bodies with hoses.
These symptoms correspond to the effects of sarin, a colorless, odorless nerve agent that disrupts acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that helps a muscle relax once it has completed an action. By blocking the enzyme, sarin has the effect of continuously triggering those muscles, making breathing effectively impossible as well as causing the breakdown of other bodily functions, and leading to the discharge of bodily fluids.
Though inhalation of the vapors is the primary vector of the agent, even skin contact can transmit a fatal dose of sarin to victims, who may die within one to ten minutes of exposure due to asphyxiation and the loss of bodily functions. Those surviving initial exposure may suffer permanent brain damage if they do not receive swift treatment. Even worse, particles of the gas cling to clothing, food and water, and can remain lethal for up to thirty minutes. That was why responders were washing the victims with hoses.
Reports currently suggest that eighty to one hundred of the residents were killed, and over six hundred injured. On Thursday, a Turkish hospital claimed its examination of the victims confirmed the use of sarin gas.
Chemical weapons are often collectively labeled weapons of mass destruction, but many of them—fortunately—have a low fatality rate, serving principally as weapons of terror rather than attrition.
Sarin and other nerve agents are a notable exception. Only thirty-five milligrams of sarin per cubic meter are necessary to kill a human being after two minutes of exposure, compared to nineteen thousand milligrams for chlorine gas, or 1,500 for phosgene gas, the deadliest chemical weapon used in World War I. The latter invisible gas often killed those affected the day after exposure, meaning it was not especially practical for achieving battlefield objectives. Mustard gas, which was highly visible and widely feared, caused horrible blistering injuries on contact with the skin, but killed only two percent of those it scarred.
The first nerve agent was accidentally discovered by German scientist Gerhard Schrader in 1938, who had to be hospitalized for three weeks after exposing himself to a partial dose of tabun. Realizing the gas’s potential as a weapon, Nazi Germany developed four different “G-Series” nerve agents and produced tens of thousands of tons of the deadly poisons—at the cost of a dozen workers, killed by contact with the deadly liquid despite the use of protective suits.
Fortunately, Hitler ultimately shied away from using nerve agents. This wasn’t because of some deeply buried shred of decency. When Hitler inquired about using sarin against the Allied powers, he was told by IG Farben chemist Otto Ambrose—who himself had tested the gas on human subjects—that the Allies probably had nerve agent stocks too, and would likely retaliate on an even greater scale. This was a fortunate misperception, as the Allies did not possess any nerve agents at all and were completely unaware the Germans had them.
After World War II, both the Soviet Union and Western nations studied up on the German poisons and developed even deadlier “V” series nerve agents, most notably the VX gas rather inaccurately depicted in the 1996 film The Rock. However, the taboo against using lethal chemical weapons on the battlefield was mostly respected—with some notable exceptions.