Widely read yesterday, this post received a generous number of emails, and some offered insights into weapons theory readers felt should have been included. I agree, and will include them at the bottom.With word out from NBC Wednesday night that Syria loaded chemical agents onto bombs, the potential human rights crisis became a bit more grave.
Of course it was an unnamed source who filled NBC in, but word has it that Syrian troops are simply awaiting word from Al-Assad on when to deploy chemical weapons against the Syrian people.
While the troubles facing the Syrians can’t be neatly summed up, a few details about what these chemicals are and what facing attacks from them is like, might help others understand the horrors they may go through if they’re used.
During the Iraq invasion of 2003 we had chemical weapons training all the time, and given the reason for the invasion, it seemed nearly certain the U.S. Army would fall under attack by Saddam’s chemical stockpiles.
For U.S. troops, gas training meant someone yelling “Gas. Gas. Gas.” Lifting their elbows head high and pumping their forearms back-and-forth to their ears. From that moment a very demanding clock began ticking in everyone’s mind as we ripped our gas masks from their hip carriers, slapped them to our faces, adjusted the straps, and pulled down the hoods.
Then we hauled out our thick cotton camo suits from our bags, seconds ticking off in the back of our mind as we staggered into something like a two-piece snow suit filled with activated charcoal (the same stuff in tropical aquarium filters).
Finally we buttoned the two pieces together at the waist, pulled on some gloves, some unwieldy rubber overboots that buttoned into the pants, and waited, mentally checking to see if any piece of skin or clothing was exposed to the air.
Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) training was a way of life.
We expected to live untold days in these suits in the Iraqi heat and found out only before we deployed that determining if a chemical agent had left an area was no easy task. There were swab kits and air filters, but until someone took that first deep breath and exposed themselves to the air, it was an unknown.
Photo: Wikipedia Commons
This is why we were all shown the Army Field manual order stating that the lowest ranking member of the group was to be disarmed when the perceived threat was believed to have ended. Once disarmed that soldier would remove his mask while the rest waited to see how that worked out.A little gem they don’t tell you about at the recruiting office, I remember thinking.
In the field, guys in MOPP will have two auto-injectors. One filled with Atropine and one with Diazepam. The latter to help ease the seizures associated with poisonings and the Atropine to guide the nerve agent from passing through a never-ending highway of synapses.
Atropine was developed for blood agents, not nerve agents, so the sarin or whatever wouldn’t go anywhere. We were expected to just keep injecting ourselves if exposed, letting our brain whither, and folding back the spent needles we’d used into our breast pocket.
That way when the medics found us they’d know what we’d dumped into our systems on top of the chemical attack. All of that did little to help us believe we wouldn’t be better off in the initial attack, but it was something, and having something is generally better than having nothing.
A gas mask will not be enough
When Middle Eastern children are shown being issued gas masks it’s possible to believe there is at least some level of protection there, but not in Syria’s case. Syria’s stores of sarin, VX, and mustard gas are all nerve and blistering agents that are just as easily absorbed through skin as an airway.
Without full HazMat suits or MOPP protection described above, a gas mask will do very little for someone touched by the chemical weapons. Delivered by bombs, or planes spraying aerosols, sarin and VX are as nasty as they are effective.
Sarin is a pesticide 500 times more effective than cyanide and can kill an adult male in one minute. From what I understand sarin perpetually fires nerve impulses throughout the body at a greatly-quickened rate. As the person afflicted loses control of all physiological functions, the body starts breaking down; from runny nose, nausea, and defecating, to twitching and suffocating on the ground within a matter of moments.
VX kills about 75 per cent of those it touches within seven to eight hours and had the following effect on test
animals as relayed by an old U.S. soldier:[The mice were hit] with VX. He said the spasms in their backs would be so hard they’d pop up a foot in the air. One of the training videos he saw showed an exposed cow, the cow immediately lost control and was flipping out on the ground …
Mustard gas is different. Though it’s also invisible, it causes no immediate effects.
It settles into clothing, painfully ripping portions of life away from its victim for up to weeks at a time before possible death, or long term decline sets in.
Mustard gas was common during WWI and a British nurse treating soldiers then had this to say:
They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain, even with the worst wounds, but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out.
Climbing into a MOPP suit at every possible attack was trying, but it was nothing compared to suffering conventional attacks already happening in Syria, where residents and rebels now have to contend with the fact that the next bomb could hold invisible and violent chemical death.
Chemical weapons are ugly for all the reasons listed above, but also for their indiscriminate behaviour. The compounds are guided by weather, barometric pressure, and wind. Toxins pool, they coat the surfaces of everything they touch, and they linger.
Sarin’s shelf life — the time it takes to degrade — ranges from several weeks to several months. So once it’s out there, it sticks around an awfully long time.
Casually slipping fingers across an affected patch of dew on a window, a patch of grass, or even opening an infected door handle can all have the same effects as a fresh attack.
All that being said, one reader named JB proved a wealth of on-the-ground insight into chemical munitions storage and insisted that to do right by our readers I needed to mention the distance from the chemical source, the concentration of the chemical, and a life or death anomaly called plume decay.
The first two are elemental. The degree of toxins exposed to a body are directly related to how far from the bomb someone is when it goes off and how well made the nasty concoction actually is. From the immortal words of Breaking Bad is it Heisenberg shit or some Mexican knock-off? A world of difference lies between the two extremes.
Plume decay is more technical and follows a mathematical guideline projection where the toxic plumes will fall, for how long, and at what intensity before ceasing to be a threat.
All good points JB, thanks from all of us, because it may psychologically feel like the countryside will become saturated in nerve gas, but it’s being released in relatively small amounts at varying degrees of effectiveness.
Anyway. with U.S. officials claiming Assad has the chemicals loaded into bombs, the psychological toll on Syrian rebels and residents may be immense. Let’s hope that’s all the damage the crumbling regime is looking to inflict.
Assuming the anonymous reports are true at all.
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