Facts about Sarin

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What sarin

  • Sarin is a man-made
    chemical warfare agent classified as a nerve agent. Nerve agents are
    the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents.
    They are similar to certain kinds of insecticides called organophosphate
    insecticides in terms of how they work and what kind of harmful effects
    they cause; however, nerve agents are much more potent than insecticides.
  • Sarin originally
    was developed in 1938 in Germany as an insecticide.
  • Sarin is a clear,
    colorless, and tasteless liquid that has no odor in its pure form. However,
    sarin can evaporate into a vapor (gas) and spread into the environment.
  • Sarin is also known
    as GB.

Where sarin is found and how it is used

  • Sarin is not found
    naturally in the environment.
  • Sarin and other
    nerve agents may have been used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq
    War in the 1980s.
  • Sarin was used
    in two terrorist attacks in Japan in 1994 and 1995.

How people can be exposed to sarin

  • If sarin is released
    into the air, people may be exposed through skin contact or eye contact.
    They may also be exposed by breathing air that contains sarin.
  • If sarin is released
    into water, people may be exposed by touching or drinking water that
    contains sarin.
  • If sarin comes
    in contact with food, people may be exposed by eating the contaminated
  • A person’s clothing
    can release sarin for about 30 minutes after it has come in contact
    with sarin vapor. Other people can be exposed to sarin if they breathe
    this sarin gas.
  • Because sarin breaks
    down slowly in the body, people who are repeatedly exposed to sarin
    may suffer more harmful health effects.

How sarin works

  • The extent of poisoning
    that sarin causes depends on three factors: (1) the amount of sarin
    to which they were exposed, (2) how they were exposed, and (3) the how
    long the exposure lasted.
  • Symptoms will appear
    within a few seconds after exposure to the vapor form of sarin and within
    a few minutes up to 18 hours after exposure to the liquid form.
  • All the nerve agents
    cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of the
    chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles.
    Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being
    stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing
  • Sarin vapor is
    heavier than air, so it would be more likely to settle in low-lying
  • Because sarin mixes
    easily with water, water can easily be contaminated.
  • Sarin is the most
    volatile of the nerve agents, which means that it can easily and quickly
    evaporate from a liquid into a vapor and spread into the environment.
    People can be exposed to the vapor even if they do not come in contact
    with the liquid form of sarin.
  • Because it evaporates
    so quickly, sarin presents an immediate, but short-lived, threat.

Immediate signs and symptoms of sarin exposure

  • People may not
    know that they were exposed because sarin has no odor.
  • People exposed
    to a low or moderate dose of sarin by breathing contaminated air, eating
    contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or touching contaminated
    surfaces may experience some or all of the following symptoms within
    seconds to hours of exposure:

    • Runny nose
    • Watery eyes
    • Small, pinpoint
    • Eye pain
    • Blurred vision
    • Drooling and
      excessive sweating
    • Cough
    • Chest tightness
    • Rapid breathing
    • Diarrhea
    • Increased urination
    • Confusion
    • Drowsiness
    • Weakness
    • Headache
    • Nausea, vomiting,
      and/or abdominal pain
    • Slow or fast
      heart rate
    • Low or high
      blood pressure
  • Even a small drop
    of sarin on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching where sarin
    touched the skin.
  • Exposure to large
    doses of sarin by any route may result in the following harmful health

    • Loss of consciousness
    • Convulsions
    • Paralysis
    • Respiratory
      failure possibly leading to death

What the long-term
health effects are

Mild or moderately
exposed people usually recover completely. Some studies in animals and
people suggest that severe nerve agent poisoning can cause long-term central
nervous system effects, such as changes in brain activity. However, it
is unclear what such changes may mean, if anything, regarding the function
and long-term health status of a person who has been mildly or moderately
exposed to sarin.

How people can protect themselves and what they should do if they
are exposed to sarin

  • Recovery from sarin
    exposure is possible with treatment, but the antidotes available must
    be used quickly to be effective. Therefore, the best thing to do is
    avoid exposure. If exposure cannot be avoided, rapidly decontaminate
    and get medical care as quickly as possible.
  • Leave the area
    where the sarin was released and get to fresh air. Quickly moving to
    an area where fresh air is available is highly effective in reducing
    the possibility of death from exposure to sarin vapors.

    • If the sarin
      release was outdoors, move away from the area where the sarin was
      released. Go to the highest ground possible, because sarin is heavier
      than air and will sink to low-lying areas.
    • If the sarin
      release was indoors, get out of the building.
  • Remove any clothing
    that has liquid sarin on it, and if possible, seal the clothing in a
    plastic bag. Then seal the first plastic bag in a second plastic bag.
    Removing and sealing the clothing in this way will protect you and others
    from any chemicals that might be on your clothes.
  • If helping other
    people remove their clothing, try to avoid touching any contaminated
    areas, and remove the clothing as quickly as possible.
  • Rinse the eyes
    with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes if they are burning or if vision
    is blurry.
  • As quickly as possible,
    wash any liquid sarin from the skin with large amounts of soap and water.
    Washing with soap and water will protect people from any chemicals on
    their bodies.
  • If sarin has been
    swallowed, do not induce vomiting or give fluids to drink. Seek medical
    attention immediately.
  • Stay calm. Dial
    911 and explain what has happened.
  • Wait for emergency
    personnel to arrive.

How sarin poisoning is treated

Sarin poisoning is
treated with antidotes, if necessary, and with supportive medical care.
The most important thing is for victims to be rapidly decontaminated and
to be given medical treatment as soon as possible.

How people can get more information about sarin

People can contact
one of the following:

  • Regional poison
    control center (1-800-222-1222)
  • Centers for Disease
    Control and Prevention Public Response Hotline (CDC)

    • English (888)
    • Español (888)
    • TTY (866) 874-2646
  • Agency for Toxic
    Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) (1-888-422-8737)

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