The recent chemical attacks in Syria have been all over the news for about a week now. The news may not have held the public’s attention to the degree many want, but it has certainly made an impact. I am not here to discuss American policy regarding the attack, whether I think it is right or wrong for the US to get involved, or what we should do, should have done, will do, and so on. There are enough poorly informed and poorly formed opinions riddling the issue as it is, and not nearly enough concrete information. Instead I am just going to try and talk about the science of chemical weapons and its intersection with policy in situations like this.
Syria is one of five States to have not signed or acceded to the terms of the 1993 Chemical Warfare Convention (those other four being Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan). Israel and Myanmar are the only two countries who have signed the Convention but whose governments have yet to ratify its terms. There are 189 member states that have either signed and ratified the convention or acceded to their terms after it went into effect.
What this means at this point is that Syria is not bound by the regulations set out in the Convention. They are not subject to any sort of international inspection teams as member states are, which can be requested by other member states and deployed on an anytime-anywhere basis, nor have they agreed to report and destroy their stores of chemical weapons. The Convention covers a broad range of chemical weapons, a full list of which can be found at www.opcw.org. It also prohibits the manufacture or use of precursors to any of the compounds addressed in the Convention, those reactants which are necessary to the production of chemical weapons. Those compounds with uses in other fields, such as medicine, pharmacology, research, or industry, can only be held in limited quantities defined by their necessity in those processes.
There is not a whole lot of information at present regarding the agents used in the Syrian attacks, but symptoms reported are most consistent with sarin gas, a neurotoxic agent, and mustard gas, a blistering and tissue damaging compound.
Sarin targets and inhibits acetycholinesterase, an enzyme which normally breaks down the nerve signal molecule acetylcholine. Inhibiting this activity causes a loss of control over nerve signaling, and thus the brain’s ability to communicate with the body’s organs. Acetylcholine is not broken down, and so it continues to signal indefinitely. This is what leads to the varying symptoms of sarin exposure (and exposure to all other nerve agents) such as pupil contraction, increased salivation, difficulty breathing, hypersecretion (increased sweat and tears), convulsions, and eventually asphyxiation as the victim loses control of respiratory muscles. Sarin can be inhaled, consumed, or absorbed through the skin. The speed of its action on a victim is dependent upon dosage, means of exposure, and time.
Mustard agents were originally used in the context of war towards the end of the World War I, which led to long-term damage to eyes and respiratory organs in soldiers affected. It was also used in the war between Iran and Iraq between 1979 and 1988. It is reactive with a wide range of biological molecules, but most of all with so-called nucleophiles (which donate an electron pair when forming a chemical bond) such as the nitrogen found in the structure of nucleic acids (like DNA or RNA). Symptoms are wide ranging as well, and often depend on exposure level. They begin with eye irritation, coughing, hoarseness, among other minor effects. More extreme effects, which require medical treatment, include loss of sight, blistering, and vomiting along with severe respiratory difficulty. Death seldom occurs immediately, instead taking a few days or even up to a few weeks. Damage to skin, lungs, and eyes can lead to serious infection, which is only exacerbated by possible damage to bone marrow and lymph tissue which can drop white blood cell counts.
I realize that, given the current situation, science is never really considered all that important. We are very ready as a culture to step up and make broad declarations about politics we don’t know much about. Given how little information there is as to the extent of the attacks, the agents used, the attack’s purpose, or the sequence of events before and after, I didn’t feel like I could simply write an opinion piece about the policy in place and how we need to go to war and protect against tyranny or stay out of conflicts that don’t involve us. At this point there simply isn’t enough information, and I’m not even close to being well-informed enough to have a worthwhile opinion on Syrian politics or to say what the West’s role therein should be. What I can say is that these are the natures and effects of the agents most likely used in the attacks and that they are not pleasant substances. Their use was the basis for an international convention on warfare for a reason, and any instance of their appearance in domestic or international warfare is cause for grave concern. I only hope we can address this issue with international support, and with the goal of preventing further chemical attacks, rather than making power plays in unstable regions or whatever else we may be attempting.
I got pretty much all of the information here from this website, and if you are at all curious about international policy on chemical weapons check it out: www.opcw.org