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Nerve Agents

Definition

Nerve agents are cholinesterase inhibitors and do damage by affecting the nervous system. They are the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents. They are particularly dangerous because they only require small amounts to cause significant symptoms or even death. These agents include:

  • Sarin – commonly known as ‘GB, sarin is a manufactured chemical warfare agent that is clear, colorless, odorless and tasteless. It was originally developed as a pesticide in Germany in 1938. It can take a gas or liquid form and is highly volatile and lethal.
  • Soman – also known as ‘GD, soman is a manufactured chemical warfare agent. It is a clear, colorless, tasteless liquid that has a slight camphor odor or rotting fruit odor. It was originally developed as an insecticide in Germany in 1944. If heated, it can become a vapor.
  • Tabun – also known as ‘GA, tabun is a clear, colorless, tasteless liquid with a faint, fruity smell. If heated it can become a vapor. It was originally developed as a pesticide in Germany in 1936.
  • VX – a persistent oily liquid that is amber in color and very slow to evaporate. It is odorless and tasteless. It was originally developed in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s. It can be heated to create vapor form, but in only in small amounts. It is considered more toxic than other nerve agents.

Exposure

The exposure methods for sarin, soman and tabun are similar. Following the release of any of these agents into the air, people can become ill by breathing them in, ingesting them, or through skin or eye contact.

These three agents can all mix easily with water, so they can be used to poison water supplies. Once released into the water, people can be exposed by touching or drinking water that contains these agents. These nerve agents can be used to contaminate food.

Each of the three agents can be released in vapor form. A person’s clothing can release the agents for about 30 minutes after it has come into contact with these agents, which can lead to exposure of other people.

People can be exposed to VX in the following ways:

  • Once released into the air, people can be exposed through skin or eye contact or through breathing in the VX vapor mist.
  • Although the agent does not mix with water as well as the other nerve agents, it could be released into water. People can be exposed by drinking contaminated water or getting contaminated water on their skin.
  • After coming into contact with the VX vapor, a person’s clothing can release VX for up to 30 minutes which can lead to exposure of other people.

Symptoms

People exposed to nerve agents may experience the following immediate symptoms:

  • runny nose
  • watery eyes
  • small, pinpoint pupils
  • eye pain
  • blurred vision
  • cough
  • chest tightness
  • drooling and excessive sweating
  • diarrhea (loss of bowel common)
  • rapid breathing
  • increased urination
  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • weakness
  • headache
  • nausea, vomiting and/or abdominal pain
  • slow or fast heart rate
  • abnormally high blood pressure
  • muscle twitching

Exposure to large doses of any of the nerve agents could result in the following additional symptoms:

  • loss of consciousness
  • convulsions
  • paralysis
  • respiratory failure leading to death

Treatment

Persons who have been exposed to any nerve agent should remove all clothing and wash body thoroughly and immediately seek medical attention. Antidotes are available for these nerve agents, most often atropine and pralidoxime (z-pam). They are most useful if given as soon as possible after exposure.

For more extensive information about these agents, please visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


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