Deadly Cloud: The Science Behind the Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack
It's believed that last week the Syrian government murdered hundreds of its own civilians with chemical weapons.
It’s believed that last week the Syrian government murdered hundreds of its own civilians with chemical weapons. We don’t know which weapon they used, but we do know it’s one of a handful of chemicals called nerve agents.
Nerve agents were invented accidentally by a Nazi-era scientist trying to make a more effective pesticide. That’s why these molecules are so similar in their structure to the most common class of insecticides, chemicals called organophosphates because they contain carbon-based (“organic”) groups coupled to a phosphorous atom. And the way a nerve agent kills you is very similar to the way an organophosphate pesticide kills an insect.
It looks like last week’s massacre could lead to war (the White House is talking about a missile strike). With that in mind, here’s a look at the science of what happened.
This post originally appeared on Puff the Mutant Dragon, and has been republished with permission.How do we know the Syrian govt used nerve agents?
The symptoms are unmistakable. For example, the pupils of victims’ eyes had narrowed to the size of pinpoints. That’s exactly what happened to the German scientist who invented tabun, the first nerve agent. The pinpoint pupils is a hallmark of nerve agent poisoning. There is no other chemical weapon that would cause these kinds of symptoms.What did they use?
All the nerve agents cause similar symptoms, so there’s no way to know for sure without a sample for testing.