Sat, Sep 21, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Sarin gas: history of a chemical weapon

The UN has confirmed that the deadly nerve agent sarin was used to kill hundreds of Syrians last month. The history of this weapon’s use is a global story and often chilling

By Ian Sample  /  The Guardian

Soon after sarin was invented, the recipe for the agent was passed to the German army, which set about manufacturing stocks of the weapon. The agent was loaded into shells, but never used on Allied forces in World War II. At the Nuremberg Trials in 1948, one of the inventors, Otto Ambros, was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released after four years and whisked off to the US where he worked as a consultant on that country’s own chemical weapons program. In military circles, sarin came to be known by a secret name: GB.

A unique document from 1952, one year after Ambros arrived in the US, describes the gruesome effects of sarin poisoning after an unfortunate military accident. On the morning of Nov. 7, 1952, a jet aircraft sped towards Dugway Proving Ground in Tooele, Utah. The sky was clear and the wind was a gentle breeze of 5-6kph. Each of the plane’s wing tanks were filled with 380 liters of sarin.

The plan was for the plane to spray the sarin over a target site, but because of a malfunction, each tank still contained 340 liters of sarin when they were jettisoned in an isolated area of the site at 8:29am. The tanks fell from 610m onto the salt crust of the open desert and burst open as they struck the ground. The sarin, dyed red to help gauge how far it had dispersed, was spread over 3,530m2.

An inspection crew was sent out in an ambulance to investigate the site where the tanks had landed. Half an hour before arriving, they all donned gas masks. All except one 32-year-old man. He promptly climbed out of the ambulance and walked towards a crater made by one of the falling tanks. Within 10 seconds, he turned, clutched his chest and made quickly back to the ambulance. He called for his gas mask and stumbled. According to the report: “As he staggered, one arm extended and flexed in a jerky manner. He collapsed upon reaching the ambulance.”

Medics swiftly administered a deep injection of atropine into the man’s thigh. This is the standard antidote for sarin and it works by blocking the agent’s effects on nerves. As he breathed, he made screeching sounds and low-pitched gargles. He had rapid, violent convulsions for a minute, his legs and spine extending, his arms flung above his head. He then fell into a flaccid paralysis and stared straight ahead. Two minutes later he made only the occasional gulp for air. Soon his pupils were pinpoints.

“No arterial pulse could be detected by the aid man,” the report said.

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