Sarin: the deadly history of the nerve agent used in Syria

The Guardian reports: Now we know. On the morning of 21 August, as the air above Damascus cooled, rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin fell on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital and left scores of men, women and children dead or injured. UN inspectors had been in the country for three days, on a mission to investigate allegations of earlier atrocities. They quickly changed tack. They brokered a temporary ceasefire with the regime and the rebels and made straight for Ghouta. Video reports from the area showed hospital staff overwhelmed and desperate.

Never before had UN inspectors worked under such pressure and in the midst of a war zone. The small team, headed by the Swedish chemical weapons expert Åke Sellström, was threatened with harm. Their convoy was shot at. But their 41-page report was completed in record time.

Sarin was that breed of accident that scientists come to regret. Its inventors worked on insecticides made from organophosphate compounds at the notorious IG Farben chemical company in Nazi Germany. In 1938, they hit on substance 146, a formula that caused massive disruption to the nervous system. The chemical name was isopropyl methylfluorophosphate, but the company renamed it sarin to honour the chemists behind the discovery – Schrader, Ambros, Ritter and Van der Linde – according to Benjamin Garrett’s 2009 book The A to Z of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare. The chemical they created had the grim distinction of being many times more lethal than cyanide.

Substance 146 is not hard to make, but it is hard to make without killing yourself. There are more than a dozen recipes that lead to sarin, but all require technical knowhow, proper lab equipment and a serious regard for safety procedures. One major component is isopropanol, more commonly known as rubbing alcohol. Another is made by mixing methylphosphonyl dichloride with hydrogen or sodium fluoride. But methylphosphonyl dichloride is not easy to come by. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention it is listed as a schedule 1 substance, making it one of the most restricted chemicals in existence. [Continue reading…]

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