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05/06/2013

What is sarin gas? A look at one of the world's most dangerous chemical weapons

There is still no concrete proof of chemical warfare in Syria but discussions of the possibility all seem to centre around the same chemical agent: sarin gas, one of the world's most dangerous chemical weapons.

Sarin gas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is man-made and "the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents."

If released into the air as a gas, sarin is very difficult to escape or even notice -- it's colourless, tasteless and odourless and people can be exposed through skin contact, eye contact, breathing in contaminated air or eating contaminated food.

People can also be poisoned by drinking water mixed with sarin. And when sarin vapour or liquid gets onto clothing, it can continue to poison for 30 minutes -- people who've been exposed are advised to quickly take off their clothes, seal them in a plastic bag, and wash themselves vigorously with soap and water.

Originally developed by Nazi scientists as a pesticide, sarin gas works similarly to the insect killers in terms of its effect and how it causes bodily harm -- essentially, by disrupting the nervous system and overstimulating the body's glands and muscles. People exposed to low doses can recover but high exposures can cause victims to suffocate by paralyzing the muscles around their lungs, according to the Council for Foreign Relations. CFR also says sarin is 500 times more toxic than cyanide -- just one drop can kill the average person in a matter of minutes.

Sarin causes a variety of symptoms, including runny nose, watery eyes, pinpoint pupils, eye pain, blurred vision, drooling, excessive sweating, cough, chest tightness, rapid breathing, confusion, headache, nausea, diarrhea and fluctuations in heart rate or blood pressure -- in severe cases, it can cause convulsions, paralysis and death.

There are antidotes for sarin but they are only effective when given quickly. Sarin has been used as a chemical weapon in the past, most notably by Iraq in the Halabja massacre of 1998 and in Japan, where a doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo carried out two sarin gas attacks in the mid-90s.

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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