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Sarin Nerve Agent

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Sarin nerve agent is among the world’s most hazardous and toxic chemical agents. Sarin illustrates characteristics of organophosphates in its reactions and the effects of exposure. However, the toxicity potency of Sarin is critically higher than that of other organophosphates. Sarin is characterized by colorless, clear and tasteless liquid that is odorless in its pure form. Sarin belongs to the fluorinated organophosphorous compounds chemical family with a chemical formulae indicated as {(CH3)2CHO}CH3P(O)F. Sarin illustrates chiral molecular characteristics where its four substituents are joined to a tetrahedral phosphorous structure. Sarin is composed of a combination of chemical compounds (Nerve Agent, 2003). These include methylphosphonyl dichloride (CH3Cl2OP) which is reacted with hydrogen fluoride (HF) to form methylphosphonyl difluoride (CH3POF2). Methylphosphonyl difluoride is reacted with isopropyl alcohol (C3H8O). The alcoholysis process generates hydrogen fluoride, which is neutralized by adding Isopropylamine {(CH3)2CHNH2.

The chemical combination of these in a chemical reaction creates Isopropyl methylphosphonofluoridate commonly known as Sarin. Sarin is perfectly soluble in water and has a boiling point of 147oC and a melting point of -57oC. It has a molecular weight of 146.10, and a molecular density is 1.09 g/cm3 at twenty five degrees centigrade (Nerve Agent, 2003). It has indicated vapor density of 4.86 with a vapor pressure of 2.9 mmhg at twenty five degrees centigrade. Sarin acts by inhibiting Acetylcholinesterase enzyme.

Acetylcholinesterase functions by breaking and hydrolyzing Acetyl choline neurotransmitters for a single transmission of nerve impulses. However, Sarin acts by inhibiting this enzyme leading to an accumulation of acetyl choline at the nerve endings leading to paralysis and death as a result of asphyxiation (Nerve Agent, 2003). Sarin is indicated as a critical nerve agent in chemical warfare and is characterized as a weapon of mass destruction. The high toxicity levels of Sarin make it the most dangerous nerve agent, which can be easily synthesized through readily available chemical literature and materials from chemical companies.


The chemical and physical characteristics of Sarin make the agent fairly easy to deploy as weapon. The use of heat is significantly effective in deploying Sarin. When placed on a hot object or surface, Sarin evaporates into the air where it is spread through air movement. The deployment of Sarin through the air as vapor is dependent on the level of expected exposure, air movement and accessibility of heat for the evaporation process (Nerve Agent, 2003). This method is most effective in closed spaces and rooms where optimal exposure and results are realized. Deployment of Sarin in open areas minimizes the number of casualties since it is diluted as the exposure area is increased.

Sarin has 100% solubility with water; therefore, water is a critical deployment method of Sarin as a weapon. Sarin is characterized as tasteless, odorless and colorless liquid which, when mixed with water, cannot be detected through conventional means like smelling or tasting in water. Hence, water becomes an effective method of deploying Sarin as a weapon. The determination of exposure level through water can be based on the available water sources, their accessibility, and established infrastructure for maximum exposure (Nerve Agent, 2003). These can be communal water systems and grids. The exposure of a single water terminal can affect the deployment of Sarin to a significantly large region, which is serviced by the contaminated water terminal.

However, the deployment of Sarin as a weapon is most effective through military tools like missiles. The use of missiles, where Sarin is deployed to impact the targeted area can be significantly effective. The use of this method critically reduces collateral damage where civilians are exposed to the nerve agent. Therefore, in the use of military artillery as a deployment method in an efficient and controlled way, instances of exposure to civilians are avoided at all costs.

Effects of Sarin to the Human Body

The exposure of Sarin to the human body is fatal. Exposure can produce health effects within minutes or seconds of exposure. Significant exposure may lead to death within one to ten minutes of exposure. Regardless of the method of exposure, the effects of Sarin exposure are the same. However, the initial exposure effects are dependent on route and amount of exposure. Sarin interferes with the functionality of the nervous system, central nervous system, internal organs and skeletal muscles of the body (CDC, 2006).

Exposure to the eyes is illustrated by contraction of pupils, conjunctiva, pain around and in the eyes, blurred vision, vomiting and nausea. These exposure symptoms result from the direct contact with Sarin liquid or vapor; however, exposure through other avenues can affect the eyes, as well. When Sarin is ingested it results in abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea and vomiting. Critical effects are observed when exposure is through inhalation, which results in moderate to mild miosis, bronchoconstriction, runny nose, shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing and fluid accumulation in the lungs (CDC, 2006). Individuals exposed through inhalation may have seizure attacks, paralysis, loss of consciousness, blockage of the lungs and digestive tract by accumulation of fluids that may lead to death.

However, Sarin exposure through the skin may indicate immediate effects in a few hours. Exposure through the skin is characterized by muscular twitching, nausea, diarrhea, sweating profusely and malaise. In severe exposure instances, victims may indicate health effects from two to thirty minutes after exposure. Victims may also indicate seizures, muscular twitching, increased fluids in the digestive tract and lungs, leading to nose and mouth secretions, loss of consciousness and eventual death. People who indicate moderate or mild exposure have tendencies of complete recovery from Sarin exposure effects; however, those exposed to large doses are less likely to survive Sarin exposure effects.

Degradation and Shelf Life

Sarin’s shelf life is determined by the amount of impurities in its precursor material. Impurities in Sarin’s precursor materials have the effect of shortening its shelf life; however, Sarin’s shelf life can be prolonged by the addition of defined petroleum products or oils. Sarin’s short shelf life can be prolonged by the incorporation of stabilizers like tributlylamine in improving the purity of intermediates and the precursor (Nerve Agent, 2003). In some instances, Sarin is stored in aluminum casings by the use of diisopropylcarbodiimide; however, Sarin precursors are kept separate in military applications and combined to form the active agent immediately before deployment. This is done for the purpose of maintaining safety and stability of the nerve agent.

Sarin reacts to pH differently depending on pH concentrations. Sarin is characterized by fluoride and phosphorous compound reactions. Hence, as a compound illustrating phosphoryl halides chemical reactions, the bond between fluoride and phosphorous is subjected to a hydrolysis process; where the chemical bond between the two compounds is broken easily by hydroxide and water. Hydroxide and water acts as nucleophilic agents in the chemical process. When exposed to high levels of pH, rapid decomposition of Sarin results in derivatives of phosphonic acids, which are nontoxic (Nerve Agent, 2003). Therefore, Sarin decomposes in weeks to several months depending on the extent of exposure to different levels of pH and the impurities in the precursor materials. However, Sarin’s shelf life can be prolonged by improving the purity of the intermediate and precursor chemical content while refining its production process (Nerve Agent, 2003). This can also be realized by the incorporation of a stabilizer in the storage of Sarin and the development of binary chemical compounds, where the chemical precursors are kept separately and combined at the point of deployment. These will significantly improve the nerve agent’s shelf life.

History of Attacks

Despite being developed in Germany in 1938, Sarin was never used in the World War II as would have been expected. However, the nerve agent came into use as a weapon in the Iran-Iraqi war that lasted in the period from 1980 to 1988. Iraq used the nerve agent against Iran during this period of war. In 1988, Sarin was used in a period of two days through bombardment of Halabja, an ethnic city occupied by Kurds in northern regions of Iraq (Nerve Agent, 2003). The population in this region was 70, 000 people who were exposed to the nerve agent where estimated deaths amounted to 5,000 people.

In 1994, adherents of Aum Shinrikyo a religious cult in Matsumoto, Japan, used Sarin in the act of terrorism. Sarin was exposed in various locations in Kaichi heights region. The nerve agent caused the deaths of eight people while over two hundred people were affected (Nerve Agent, 2003). This was followed by a subsequent attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Sarin was released on various lines where resulting deaths amounted to thirteen, fifty injuries and approximately a thousand had vision impairment from exposure to Sarin gas (Nishiwaki et al., 2001).  The attack was executed in five coordinated exposures of Sarin to the public which targeted trains passing through Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki, the administrative base of the Japanese government.

In 2004, a shell load with Sarin binary precursors was detonated in Iraq by terrorist fighters. The shells design aimed at mixing the Sarin binary chemical agents during flight; however, only minimal amounts of Sarin gas were released on impact. This is attributed to failure to mix the nerve agent chemicals or the chemicals had decomposed significantly. This incident did not have death casualties, and only two American soldiers were symptomatic to Sarin gas exposure.

Classification as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Sarin was indicated as a weapon of mass destruction under the UN Security Council resolution 687, on 3 April 1991. This resolution was purposely implemented and adopted to assert Iraq’s obligations to destroy all biological, ballistic and chemical weapons in the observation of the Geneva protocol (UN Treaty Collection, 2012). Iraq was required to submit a report indicating the locations of all its weapons within fifteen days.  These locations were to be subjected to onsite inspections to determine the accuracy of the report issued to the UN Security Council. This led to the establishment of the United Nations Special Commission whose provisions were set in accordance with inspections. The provisions of the resolution were accepted by Iraq on 6th April 1991.

However, production of Sarin nerve agent was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. The Set objectives of the convention are to prohibit the production, use and the elimination of all chemical weapons through destruction (UN Treaty Collection, 2012). The convention provides the provisions for the evaluation of military and chemical plants in a systematic methodology. It also provides for investigations into allegations of production and use of chemical weapons on the basis of intelligences provided by other member states. The chemical weapons convention is under the mandate of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). OPCW is the platform in which the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) are legally specified (OPCW, 2012).

The convention seeks to prohibit the use and production of chemical weapons like Sarin nerve agent. The destruction and disposal of all chemical weapons including those abandoned beyond the state parties jurisdiction; while assisting the OPCW and the state Parties in the event that chemical weapons are used. The convention seeks to establish an OCPW inspection rules and guidelines for chemical productions, which may be converted or used as chemical weapons. Therefore, the establishment of peaceful cooperation in chemistry uses amongst the international community’s is critical.

Detection and Avoidance

Sarin can be detected in urine or through tests aimed at identifying its biomarkers. In blood tests, the extent of Acetylcholinesterase inhibition is the optimal marker exposure. In some instances, fluoride reaction process is used to detect the extent of Sarin exposure. Hence, given that the ideal method for Organophosphorous agents includes the binding of the nerve agent to serine which is found in active segments of Acetylcholinesterase (AChE). Therefore, plasma Butyrylcholinestrase (BUChE) binds with Sarin nerve agent to give a significant Quantity of substrate in the reactivation process involving fluoride (Fulco, Liverman, Sox, 2000). This aims at improving the precision and sensitivity of the analysis method in use. In the reactivation process, the enzyme from the phosphonyl center is cleaved by the fluoride ion to reform the fluorine-phosphorous bond. In the event of Sarin exposure, the cleavage reaction leads to the reactivation or regeneration of original Sarin nerve agent (Fulco, Liverman, Sox, 2000). However, other methods are available, where Sarin detection is done using nerve agent detection devices and laboratory procedures.

However, the best approach in the event of Sarin release is to avoid being exposed. Evacuating the area exposed to Sarin to an area which is adequately ventilated is critical in minimizing Sarin exposure casualties. Sarin has a higher density than air; therefore, it accumulates near the ground (CDC, 2006). Hence, people should move to higher grounds to minimize the levels of exposure. In the event, when it is released within closed spaces, all doors, windows and vents should be opened to allow in fresh air, while evacuating people from the enclosed space. In instances where the exposure is from the liquid form of the nerve agent, the clothes should be removed immediately by cutting them off. These should be disposed in plastic bags to avoid further contamination. However, rescuers should be careful not to touch the contaminated clothes and materials with their bare skin. Liquid Sarin should be washed off with large volumes of water and soap (CDC, 2006). These protect exposed people from adverse effects of any nerve agent on their bodies. The eyes should be methodically rinsed with pure water for 10 to 15 minutes in case they have blurred vision or they are burning. In the vent of ingestion, vomiting should not be induced; however, medical attention should be sought immediately.

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