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Syria's Sarin, Chemical Weapons: FAQ

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 6, 2012 -- Syria's military is reported to be prepared to use sarin, a potent nerve gas, posing an obvious threat to Syrian civilians -- and to the rest of the world.

What is sarin? What other chemical weapons are in Syria's arsenal? Might the weapons fall into the wrong hands? See below for answers to these and other questions posed by this troubling development.

What Is Sarin?

Sarin, also known as GB, is a man-made nerve gas not found in nature. It's one of the most deadly and fastest-acting chemical weapons known to man.

Developed by a German chemist in 1938, sarin was too dangerous for its intended use as a pesticide. The Nazis developed sarin into a chemical weapon, but never used it.

Iraq is thought to have deployed sarin weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq also used sarin in an attack on its own Kurdish population. It was used in the subways of Japan in a domestic terrorist attack by an apocalyptic cult.

How Does Sarin Harm People?

Sarin is a close relative of organophosphate bug-killers, but is far more powerful. On humans, it has much the same effect as these pesticides have on bugs.

According to the CDC, sarin blocks the chemical "off switch" for glands and muscles. Muscles quickly fail, and a person who gets a lethal dose stops being able to breathe.

Chemical weapons typically use aerosolized sarin, which has no odor or color. People exposed to the vapor, or who get a drop or two of liquid sarin on their skin, die within minutes to 18 hours. Sarin could also be used to poison water or food.

Sarin evaporates quickly. Clothing contaminated with sarin gives off deadly fumes for about 30 minutes, posing a risk to rescue workers and medical personnel.

Why Worry About Syria's Sarin?

Leonard Spector, deputy director of the nonprofit James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in 2011 reported that the U.S. government believes Syria has a large stockpile of chemical agents. These agents range from mustard gas -- infamously used during World War I trench warfare -- to sarin and an even more deadly nerve gas called VX.

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