Biology

Syria: A Chemical Catastrophe in Progress

By Kellie Lu

With Syria’s not-so-clandestine arsenal of chemical weapons debated over the table of the UN Security Council, chemical weapons, particularly nerve gases, have once again been thrust into the global attention. The power of these macroscopically undetectable molecules is not to be underestimated; within seconds, a mere milligram dose of sarin can kill a human being. And these gas attacks aren’t quite like Heisenburg’s (Walter White) nifty explosive chemical stunts on Breaking Bad. These unnatural, man-made chemical fiends are transparent, odorless, and colorless; they are undetectable by any of our five senses. As a hydrophilic species, nerve gases also easily mix with water, rendering their transmission through human bodies devastatingly rapid.

So how do these killers operate? Nerve gases function similarly to common insecticides, or organophosphates, when in contact with a human body. These nerve agents kill by inhibiting the acetylcholinerase enzyme in the neuromuscular junction between muscle fibers and nerve fibers. The nerve agent inhabits the serine esteric site of the acetylcholinase enzyme, where acetylcholine normally binds, breaks down into acetic acid and choline, and becomes inactive.

However, by preventing this chemical decomposition, sarin allows the acetylcholine neurotransmitters to remain in the synapse of the neuromuscular junction long after a signal has been transmitted from a nerve fiber to a muscle fiber. As a result, acetylcholine continues to trigger muscle reactions repeatedly, generating hyperstimulation of all muscles in the body. Imagine the experience as a massive seizure involving the stomach, lungs, and pretty much every smooth muscle and skeletal muscle in the body. Within minutes, victims violently convulse, fall stricken in paralysis, and perish.

Here is a picture of a rabbit‘s eye in a normal state and when infected with sarin.

On the left is an image of a normal rabbit’s pupil. On the right is an image of a rabbit’s pupil abnormally constricted due to the effects of the nerve gas. Pupillary constriction is one symptom in addition to muscle hyperstimulation that arises from nerve gas poisoning (via JMedCBR).

So what can we make of the new rise of these deadly weapons? Over the last few weeks, the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee unveiled their 2013 recipient, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, in an effort to encourage “progress” in the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria.

Yet while the Nobel Peace Prize and the highly publicized Syria conflict have elevated public consciousness of chemical mass weapons of destruction, complete dissolution of chemical weapons, like nuclear weapons, still remains a stagnant issue. Less publicized in mass media are the countries who clench yet-to-be-destroyed stockpiles of chemical weapons tightly in their hands behind their backs: the United States and Russia. Indeed, while the (feeble) anticipatory gesture of the Nobel Peace Prize redirected public spotlight back to the Syrian crisis, “peace” is still a long ways off.

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