What is Sarin?

Mary McMahon

Sarin is a chemical weapon that is classified as a nerve agent, meaning that it works by attacking the function of the nervous system. It is extremely dangerous; an amount which would fit on a pinhead is enough to kill a healthy, full-grown adult. Like other chemical weapons, sarin is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which means that signatories should not be producing, stockpiling, researching, selling, or using this agent. However, it is possible for terrorist organizations to manufacture it, as illustrated in 1994 during the Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo subway system.

The Tokyo gas attack was one of the most serious acts of terrorism in the nation's history.
The Tokyo gas attack was one of the most serious acts of terrorism in the nation's history.

This chemical was developed in the 1930s by the Germans, who initially planned on using it as a pesticide. German researchers knew sarin as GB, classifying it among the G-series of chemical weapons, and the United Nations prefers to use that term. The chemical formula of sarin is C4H10FO2P, making it a member of the phosphinates. It interferes with the production and transmission of the enzyme cholinesterase, which normally allows muscles to relax after they have been contracted.

Exposure to sarin can cause shortness of breath.
Exposure to sarin can cause shortness of breath.

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Sarin is a colorless, odorless liquid that evaporates at room temperature, making it ideal for aerosolized dispersal. However, it also breaks down very quickly, having a short life of only a few weeks; most facilities which produce and work with it, therefore, keep the constituent chemicals around, rather than stocks of sarin itself. To destroy the chemical, a strong alkali is used to break it down.

Exposure to sarin results in a constriction of the pupils, as they are unable to relax, along with a runny nose, shortness of breath, and nausea. These symptoms can appear within moments of exposure, followed by a complete loss of muscle control and, ultimately, death. People who are exposed to it can be treated with an antidote if they are promptly identified. Victims of the Tokyo gas attack often described a sense of growing darkness when discussing their exposure, as well as a general lack of coordination and an inability to think clearly.

Because sarin is so dangerous, ordinary civilians are unlikely to be exposed to it. However, exposure is not impossible, especially for people who live in areas which could be considered potential terrorist targets. The US Centers for Disease Control recommendations for exposure include moving promptly to an area with fresh air, stripping to remove contaminated clothing and bagging said clothing, and quickly washing with soap and water to remove the chemical from the skin. Prompt hospitalization is needed for any hope of recovery.

Exposure to sarin may result in a runny nose.
Exposure to sarin may result in a runny nose.

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Discussion Comments


@bythewell - The thing is, there are plenty of agreements about how no one should use chemical weapons. In fact, they have been signing agreements for over a hundred years saying that they won't use poisons or gases in war.

And everyone is still doing it. I know there is a list on Wikipedia which shows how many countries are known to still be stockpiling and researching chemical weapons and it has at least a dozen names on there, some of them (most of them!) very big players in international affairs.

People can be horrified all they like. It's a reality, and one which we unfortunately have to live with.

The possibility of a sarin gas attack, in my mind, is one of the least scary things that could happen. At least sarin gas can be removed from the environment. There are other chemicals which cannot be removed so easily.


War is war. I don't see any difference between soldiers dying from bullets or from sarin nerve gas, to be honest. In fact the gas seems like it would be a quicker, easier death.

The main problem I can see with chemical warfare is that, like nuclear warfare, it's just too easy to go overboard. Everyone has to agree not to use the really bad weapons, because no one wants the really bad weapons used on them.

And besides, it is too easy for terrorists to get hold of research or stockpiled chemical weapons if all the countries were engaged in a free for all race to try and make the most effective kind.


The use of chemical weapons is so disturbing to me. I mean, in many cases you are completely wrecking the area around you as well as the people you are targeting. Sarin gas isn't an example of that, of course, because it can be removed.

But, chemical weapons can also have long term effects, and they are so imprecise. They basically exist so someone can make a statement that they are evil and dangerous.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that they only really exist to make people afraid, which is just disgusting. Why can't people just live in harmony? Or if not harmony, why can't they act like adults instead of stupid little children?

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