Monday, February 1, 2010

Editorial: Chemical Ali and Mustard Gas, Sarin, VX and Tabun

Posted in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs by D.P. Lyle, MD on January 28, 2010

Saddam Hussein and his two miscreant offspring Uday and Qusay are no longer with us thanks to the US military. Good riddance. The world is a much better place without these three. But Saddam’s legacy lives on in the form of his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, affectionately known as Chemical Ali.

The good news is that Chemical Ali just received his fourth death sentence for crimes against humanity. The bad news is that he ever existed in the first place. Many of the Shiites and Kurds in Iraq can vouch for his horrific cruelty, which can only be compared to things such as The Holocaust perpetrated by Hitler’s minions, the killing fields of Pol Pot, the purges of Stalin, and, well, the list goes on and on. The inhumanity of humanity is sometimes bewildering.

Chemical Ali is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people and these deaths were not pleasant. He employed a wide variety of chemicals such as Mustard Gas, VX, Sarin, and Tabun. Each of these is nasty in its own special way.

Mustard Gas first came to the public’s attention during the trench warfare of WWI. It literally burns the skin, first causing itching and swelling and ultimately large fluid-filled blisters appear over the body. If it affects the eyes it can lead to blindness. If it affects the lungs, as it typically does as the gas is inhaled, it can cause severe burning of the airways and lung tissue, causing the victim to literally drown in the fluids that are released after this type of injury. Even if the person survives the initial injuries, secondary infections often appear in the skin or the lungs and this in turn can lead to death.

Sarin gas is a fluorinated phosphonate that was originally used in insecticides but found its way into modern chemical warfare. It is classified as a cholinesterase inhibitor, which means that it interferes with the function of cholinesterase, a very important enzyme critical to neurotransmissions throughout the body. When exposed the victim will first feel a stuffy head and shortness of breath but very soon will develop chest pains, nausea, vomiting, excessive salivation, loss of control of bowels and bladder, diffuse twitching and jerking of the muscles, full-blown seizures, and finally coma and death. It’s not pretty. Even if the individual survives they can be left with permanent neurological damage. Sarin gas is as much is 500 times more toxic than cyanide.

Like Sarin, VX and Tabun are cholinesterase inhibitors and produce similar symptoms and are equally lethal.

These chemical agents are out there and available to the bad guys who don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. Isn’t that a pleasant thought?

At least for now Chemical Ali is out of business and hopefully he will soon follow the Hussein Trio to wherever people like them go. I hope it’s a place filled with these very pleasant chemicals. Poetic justice being what it is.

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