Syrians Now Face the Long-term Effects of Exposure to Chemical Warfare

Sarin gas is a powerful chemical weapon that can be used to poison thousands of people within seconds. On August 21st, Syrian civilians had no warning, preparation or protection when attacked.

They now must now face the long-term effects of sarin exposure.

Armed only with their cell phone cameras, Syrian citizens on August 21st documented what seemed to be a chemical attack, informing the international community within minutes of the occurrence. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) then reported that some 3,600 patients were admitted to Damascus-area hospitals with symptoms of exposure to chemical warfare agents. To date, the death toll is unclear and reports range anywhere from 355 to 1,500 civilians. The epidemiological pattern of occurrence such as the mass influx of patients in a short time suggests exposure to sarin, a nerve agent in Syria’s arsenal. Syria is one of five countries that has not signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention that bars nations from possessing chemical arms and therefore had not destroyed their stockpile of sarin, estimated to be over several hundred tons.

Sarin is a man-made toxin, a colorless and odorless liquid that can quickly evaporate into gas and easily spread into the environment. Once released, sarin has poisonous effects on the body’s central and peripheral nervous systems. The severity of the effects depends on the amount of the toxin a person is exposed to, for how long and in which form it was delivered. Nerve agents such as sarin cause an overstimulation of the nerve cells and prevent the proper operation of glands and muscles. Symptoms can appear within seconds or even hours and include blurred vision, excess salivation, vomiting, difficulty thinking, muscle twitches, convulsions, paralysis and respiratory failure. After removing sarin from the body, patients can be treated with one of several antidotes including atropine. While those mildly exposed to sarin usually recover within weeks, exposure to large doses can be fatal.

Even with treatment, there are severe long-term effects for survivors of a nerve gas attack. Trauma, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress after chemical warfare are long-lasting consequences on mental health as evidenced by Iranian sarin attack survivors during the Iran-Iraq war. Sarin poisoning can also cause permanent changes in brain activity and other disorders to the central nervous system. Long-term effects of sarin on the nervous system of Tokyo subway workers in the 1995 gas attack indicate a chronic decline in psychomotor and memory function. Survivors of the Japanese attack still experience respiratory and neurological effects to this day.

Although the immediate need of Syrian civilians is safety and protection, there will be a need to address the long-term effects of sarin exposure in Syria’s post-conflict reconstruction plans as well as the elimination of any remaining chemical weapons.