What Do Chemical Nerve Agents Do?

The most common chemical nerve agents are the following:

  • Sarin– Sarin, once inside your body, affects the signalling mechanism that nerve cells use to communicate with one another. Sarin is a cholinesterase inhibitor — it gums up the cholinesterase enzyme, which your nerve cells use to clear themselves of acetylcholine. When a nerve cell needs to send a message to another nerve cell (for example, to cause a muscle to contract), it sends the message with the acetylcholine. Without cholinesterase to clear the acetylcholine, muscles start to contract uncontrollably — this eventually causes death by suffocation since the diaphragm is a muscle. It acts in five to 12 hours. It is not particularly difficult to manufacture, and if you were trapped in a one-cubic-meter closet with 100 milligrams of sarin in the air, inhaling it would kill you in 1 minute.
  • Cyclosarin— Cyclosarin is another nerve agent. It works in the same way as sarin, but it is more than twice as toxic. You’d only need to be in the cubic-meter closet with 35 milligrams of airborne cyclosarin to die in 1 minute. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq made cyclosarin during the Gulf War.
  • Soman— Soman is also like sarin, but it acts faster, in 40 seconds to 10 minutes. It’s about as toxic as cyclosarin.
  • VX— VX works in the same way as sarin, but it is a liquid, while sarin vaporises. It is also ten times more toxic than sarin. Ten milligrams on the skin will kill a person. A sticky version exists that adheres to whatever it falls on.
  • Novichoks— All novichok agents are more toxic than VX. Some may be up to 10 times more toxic. They may also work differently than the nerve agents listed here, possibly rendering existing antidotes ineffective.

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