Commonly Known Chemical Weapons Agents

Chlorine

  • Description. The same chemical that kills bacteria in public water systems can be a weapon in high concentrations. Chlorine was the first chemical weapon used effectively in war -- in World War I. It is green-yellow in color and smells like bleach.
  • Effects. It is a choking agent that irritates the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract. Symptoms of chlorine poisoning appear as runny nose, coughing, choking, and chest pain. Fluid buildup in the lungs occurs several hours after exposure. Pneumonia can follow.

Cyanide

  • Description. As a gas, cyanide is colorless and has a bitter almond smell. There are two kinds of cyanide, hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride (cyanogen chloride turns into hydrogen cyanide inside the body).
  • Effects. They are blood agents that interfere with the use of oxygen in the body. But cyanogen chloride has strong irritating and choking effects on the eyes and respiratory tract, unlike hyrdogen cyanide. Liquid forms of cyanide will burn skin and eyes. Cyanide acts quickly, but only large amounts are deadly. Cyanide poisoning can be treated with sodium thiosulfate and hydroxocobalamin. Older treatment consisting of inhaled amyl nitrate, or intravenous sodium nitrite and sodium thiosulfate is still used in some areas.

Lewisite

  • Description. As a weapon, liquid Lewisite smells like a geranium and is amber to dark brown in color. The oily substance that causes blisters (a blister agent) but also can be a toxic to the lungs and poison to the whole body.
  • Effects. When inhaled in high concentrations, it can kill in as little as 10 minutes. The vapor form of Lewisite is just as dangerous, but the chemical is less effective in humid conditions. Lewisite poisoning can be treated with an antidote known as dimercarprol, if it is administered early after inhalation.

Mustard

  • Description. Mustard agents are the most widely known of the blister agents and the most common. They produce injuries that heal much more slowly and are more susceptible to infection than other chemical burns.
  • Effects. Mustard also damages eyes and airways after contact, and the gastrointestinal tract and bone marrow (where immune system cells are produced) after high doses are absorbed. Its effects are delayed, though, because it causes no pain on contact. There is no antidote to mustard poisoning. Victims' eyes should be flushed with water immediately; bleach can decontaminate skin; and oxygen should be given if mustard was inhaled.

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Phosgene

  • Description. When it is first dispersed, phosgene looks like a fog, but it becomes colorless as it spreads, although it doesn't last long. It can smell like newly mown hay but with a poisonous, suffocating odor.
  • Effects. As a choking agent, phosgene causes fluid buildup in the lungs -- but not until as many as 48 hours after exposure. Inhalation can lead to irreversible lung damage like emphysema and fibrosis (scarring). Phosgene causes severe damage to nose and throat, and can burn skin and eyes. Victims should be given oxygen and have their eyes flushed with water or saline.

Sarin

  • Description. Sarin is a nerve agent that is clear, colorless, tasteless, and odorless. It's a highly volatile chemical and is mainly an inhalation threat.
  • Effects. Symptoms of sarin poisoning include runny nose, tightness of chest, dimmed vision, breathing difficulty, drooling, excessive sweating, nausea and vomiting, involuntary bowel movement and urination, involuntary muscle movements, headache, confusion, and drowsiness. If untreated, victims stop breathing and die. Antidotes are atropine, pralidoxmine, and a benzodiazepine. Eyes and skin should be flushed thoroughly if exposed.

 

Soman

  • Description. Soman is a nerve agent that is clear, colorless and tasteless, and can have a slight camphor odor or none at all. It can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or ingested orally. Nerve agents act very quickly in vapor form; longer in liquid form.
  • Effects. Symptoms include runny nose, tightness of chest, dimmed vision, breathing difficulty, drooling, excessive sweating, nausea and vomiting, involuntary defecation and urination, involuntary muscle movements, headache, confusion, and drowsiness. If untreated, victims stop breathing and die. Antidotes are atropine, pralidoxmine, and pyridostigmine. Eyes and skin should be flushed thoroughly if exposed.

Tabun

  • Description. Tabun is a nerve agent that is clear, colorless, tasteless, and can have a slight fruity odor or none at all. It can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or ingested. Nerve agents act very quickly in vapor form; longer in liquid form.
  • Effects. Symptoms include runny nose, tightness of chest, dimmed vision, breathing difficulty, drooling, excessive sweating, nausea and vomiting, involuntary bowel movement and urination, involuntary muscle movements, headache, confusion, and drowsiness. If untreated, victims stop breathing and die. Antidotes are atropine, pralidoxmine chloride, and a benzodiazepine. Eyes and skin should be flushed thoroughly if exposed.

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VX

  • Description. The nerve agent VX is an oily liquid that is clear, odorless, and tasteless, and looks similar to motor oil. Effects of VX poisoning may occur within minutes or hours depending on how much a victim was exposed to.
  • Effects. Symptoms include visual problems, headache, runny nose and nasal congestion, salivation, tightness of chest, nausea and vomiting, anxiety, confusion, involuntary muscle movements, and involuntary bowel movement and urination. Severe exposure can lead to convulsions and respiratory failure. Antidotes are atropine, pralidoxmine, and a benzodiazepine. Eyes and skin should be flushed thoroughly if exposed.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on October 20, 2016

Sources

SOURCES: 

CDC.

Textbook of Military Medicine: Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare.

U.S. Army Surgeon General Medical NBC Information Server. 

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion & Preventive Medicine: "Detailed Chemical Facts Sheets."

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