The Nerve Agents That Have Turned Our Planet Into a Toxic Kill Zone

“A Yellow Mushroom Cloud”

Tuesday, April 5, saw an area of northern Syria held by rebels
transformed by bombings into a deadly kill zone. The chemical
bombings cast toxic chemicals, possibly nerve agents, into the
air, killing dozens and prompting international outrage.
Doctors, rescue workers, and other witnesses who survived the
deadly attack saw a “yellow mushroom cloud,” as 14-year-old
Mariam Abu Khalil described it to The
New York Times.
“It was like a winter fog,” she said. She
saw people arrive in a car to help the wounded, but “[w]hen
they got out, they inhaled the gas and died.”

Witnesses saw dozens of people, including children, die after
breathing in the gas. They described them choking, foaming at
the mouth, gasping, and writhing, and graphic video footage confirms these
accounts. The toxic fumes spread outward in the early morning
hours — a time previously thought safer by civilians leaving
home to study or pray, like Mariam Abu Khalil was — after
warplanes dropped bombs. Among the dead were rescue workers who
collapsed from being too close to the bodies as they tried to

“It was like a winter fog…when they got
out [of the car], they inhaled the gas and died.”

Nerve agents are extremely toxic chemicals
that interfere with the signaling of the nervous system. Sarin
is perhaps the best-known variety of nerve agent. It was first
deployed in the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks by the Aum
Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which used it to kill 12 people. Other
types of nerve agents include VX, tabun, and soman, all derived
from pesticides and potentially deadly.

These nerve agents are part of a class of chemicals called
organophosphates. These substances allow acetylcholine, the
nerve-signaling molecule, to run wild by binding to the enzyme
that normally turns it off. Without the enzyme, acetylcholine
stimulates nerve cell receptors ceaselessly. The specific
receptors stimulated determines the body’s response.

Organophosphate pesticides typically work within glands,
causing excessive release of fluids. This is why exposure to
them causes excessive tears, salivation, sweat, urination,
diarrhea, and constricted pupils, all leading to fluid in the
lungs and pulmonary edema, which can be fatal. Organophosphate
nerve agents target the junctions between muscles and nerves
instead, leading to excessive twitching and eventual paralysis
as the victim’s muscles fail to manage basic motor activities
like breathing. Too much active acetylcholine in the brain can
also cause seizures.

There are antidotes to nerve agents, such as atropine, which
blocks acetylcholine receptors, and pralidoxime (2-PAM), which
stops acetylcholine buildup by removing the organophosphate
from the enzyme. However, both antidotes must be administered
within around 10 minutes of exposure, or it’s too late for them
to have an effect.

The symptoms displayed by the victims of this week’s attack
were consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals
including nerve agents, according to the World Health Organization
. The WHO also confirmed that it was shipping atropine
to Syria via Turkey. Doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières, who treated some
of the victims, said that they showed symptoms consistent with
exposure to sarin or a similar compound. They also said the
victims smelled like bleach, which could indicate that the
attack was a targeted mixture of chlorine gas and nerve

The Idlib Province Health Department, located in the
opposition-run area where the attack was focused, initially
provided a list of 69 names of victims to the NYT.
However, humanitarian groups say more than 100 are dead, and some are still
unidentified in the chaos. The White Helmets, a civil defense
organization, has stated that numerous children are among the
wounded and dead and that five of their rescue workers are ill,
suffering from exposure to the toxic gas.

Notably, while people on the ground in northern Syria
acknowledge that chlorine gas attacks have almost become a
tragic part of life, witnesses and medical personnel agreed
that this attack is different. Chlorine gas dissipates quickly
and usually kills fewer people, just those trapped in a closed
space. This week’s attack killed many, even those in open areas
outdoors and those who came into contact with victims.

International Condemnation

International shock over Tuesday’s incident is high. Although
this is not the first time the Syrian government
has been accused of deploying nerve agents during the country’s
six-year war, this appears to be among the worst incidents
anywhere to date, not just as an act of war, but as a
government’s actions against its own citizens. For many in the
international community, it is a sign of dangerous gains in
government impunity.

Humanitarian groups have expressed outrage over the chemical
attack and demanded that the United Nations Security Council
take action. Since 2011, when the conflict in Syria began,
partisan divides on the council have made decisive action
elusive. The five permanent members of the council are China,
France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the
United States. The ten non-permanent members are each elected
for two-year terms and have changed significantly throughout
the conflict’s duration.

Past uses of chemical weapons in Syria have gone unaddressed by
the Security Council due to its inability to agree on a response. The
divide primarily exists between China and Russia, who have not
wanted to condemn Syria’s acts or its leadership, and France,
the United Kingdom, and the United States, who have stated that
the use of chemical weapons cannot be condoned and should not
go unpunished.

This latest attack has prompted another meeting of the Security
Council. France, the U.K., and the U.S. are pushing for the
adoption of a resolution that would condemn
the attack and order the Syrian government to provide detailed
information about it to international investigators, including
the names and flight logs for everyone involved in the attack,
from the commanders to pilots. The draft resolution has already
been circulating and may be up for a vote this week.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley has called upon the other permanent
members of the Security Council to unify based on the attack,
threatening unilateral action by the U.S.
should the U.N. fail to act. This is not the first such threat
from the U.S. The August 2013 attack prompted a threat of
American retaliation as well. At that point, Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad agreed to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons
program and ban chemical weapons under an international treaty.
Until that point, the Syrian government had denied having a chemical weapons program at

While this was a success on paper, the Organization for the
Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
, who led the international
monitoring body during this process, remained concerned. The slow speed of the
operation and possibly misleading responses from Damascus
raised questions about whether all materials were in fact
accounted for. The organization has continued to investigate,
and along with the United Nations, it has found that the
government of Syria has violated the chemical weapons treaty at
least three times more — with chlorine gas and sarin. Others
working on the ground, including doctors and activists, say
there have been far more attacks.

Ending Use of Nerve Agents

Short of open war, it’s not entirely clear what the United
Nations and individual countries such as the U.S. can do to
effectively end the use of chemical weapons in Syria. If the
Syrian government is responsible for these attacks, then it has
clearly violated the chemical weapons treaty. Generally, when
nations sign treaties and then violate them, it is up to the
international community to deal with the problem, first through
the U.N. Security Council. However, experts seem to believe
that the council will remain divided. Even if China comes to
agree with the majority position that action should be taken
against Syria, Russia is unlikely to follow suit.

According to Middle East expert Dr. Rodger
of the Lowy Institute, although Russia and Syria
have long been allies, theirs is a complex relationship.
Russian President Vladimir Putin relies upon Syria for
geopolitical leverage in the region — something the country
can’t afford to lose. Iran, Syria’s other key ally, is in a
similar position. Both nations have supported Syrian troops in
the war, while Turkey has supported opposition troops.

Now, the U.K. and other U.N. member-states are characterizing
these latest attacks as not only violative of the chemical
weapons treaty, but as war crimes as well. If the U.N. could come
to an agreement on this point, it could act as a unifying force
in the region with troops. The question would then be whether
Syrian forces, backed by Russia and Iran or not, would dare to
continue the fight, bringing it to bear against U.N. forces.

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If the U.S. does take unilateral action in Syria, we would be
at war with a foreign power that appears to have no
compunctions about using chemical weapons in-country against
its own people — a deeply concerning prospect. We may also be
taking action against Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, as a
matter of fact, if not intent.

This might then lead senior American strategists to choose some
sort of covert ops tactic, possibly supported by allies such as
Israel. If the U.S. attempts to simply remove Assad, several
scenarios are likely.

A security vacuum, such at that created in Iraq after the 2003 invasion or in Libya after the overthrow of Qaddafi, would
be one potential outcome of such a tactic. Another possible
outcome would be that the chemical weapons, which are obviously
present in Syria, would be loose and unaccounted for. They
could then be used by whichever new government or terrorist
groups crop up. Finally, even longer, bloodier civil and
regional conflicts could ensue as the outcome of cutting the
head off the snake, as the entire region may be destabilized.

Ultimately, this sad situation presents no simple answers.
Unified international pressure is one of the only ways, short
of violent conflict, that typically yields results in
situations like this, because no single country can go on
forever isolated from international trade, cooperation, and

Given the devastating damage wreaked by nerve agents, each
nation will have ample reason to consider backing such a plan.
The long-term health effects of nerve agents
are well-studied and have been known since World War I. Since
that time, they have become even more potent. Furthermore,
chemical weapons often persist in the environment. In cold
weather, nerve gases can stay in our atmosphere for as long as one year, blowing around
indiscriminately. Hopefully, these will be reasons enough for
countries to unite and apply the pressure needed to stop these
attacks, because responsive attacks or military operations may
not have the desired effects.

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The Nerve Agents That Have Turned Our Planet Into a Toxic Kill Zone

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