Science

Nerve agents: What are they?

In light of the recent poisoning of a Russian ex-spy, we look at what a ‘nerve agent’ is

Ilona Cabral

On March 4th this year, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury after spending time at ‘the Mill Pub’ and ‘Zizzi’. Both were admitted to hospital and remain in a critical condition.

This incident marks a profound change in the weapons used on the high street and turns the public attention towards the extremely harmful effects of nerve agents.

Nerve agents were accidentally discovered in the 1930s by scientists developing a cost-effective pesticide. The chemicals were found to be highly toxic and later ended up in the hands of the German military. After WW2 other countries continued experimented with chemical agents and, in the 1950s, British scientists were responsible for developing the VX nerve agent at Porton Down research facility.

There are three classes of nerve agents, Novichok agents, G-agents and V-agents. However, they are all highly toxic chemicals which can prove to be deadly.

Novichok, meaning “new comer” in Russian, refers to a group of advanced nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in 1970s and 1980s to avoid international restrictions on chemical weapons.

Hilary Walker, a former radiation scientist and health emergency planner explained: “Nerve agents will act within seconds or minutes if inhaled and slightly slower if exposure is the result of skin contamination,”

They “affect the nerve junctions in the body and acute exposure leads to the symptoms that have been described such as apparent white eyes as the pupils are constricted, convulsions, drooling and in the worse cases – coma, respiratory failure and death.”

Exposure immediately targets the body’s nervous system, forcing it into a painful shutdown. The situation rapidly worsens if treatment is not provided quickly and the absence of an antidote can lead to “paralysis of the nerves and the muscles, and that inhibits breathing and leads to some damage in the brain.” Says Alistair Hay, professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds.

The case of Andrei Zheleznyakov, a Russian military scientist who was accidentally exposed to Novichok, shows that even surviving the effects of the agent can be terrible. Despite almost immediately being injected with the antidote Zheleznyakov later suffered “chronic weakness, toxic hepatitis, epilepsy, severe depression and an inability to concentrate”.

The level of toxicity of nerve agents is so high that they can only be developed in specialised facilities such as universities and industrial laboratories and can only be stored as binary components.

Experts have said though that there is minimal risk to the people who went to the Mill Pub or Zizzi Restaurant in Salisbury city centre on Sunday afternoon or on Monday but, they have been advised to wash clothing and wipe possessions.

The origin of the attack is not definitive but, Teresa May has confirmed her decision to lay the blame on Russia is based on its record of “conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations”.

Mrs May has announced that strong measures will be enforced in response to the attack.This attack “sends a message a lot wider than just to the UK audience. It is part of what the Russians are up to at the moment.” Said Major General Chip Chapman, the former head of counter terrorism at the Ministry of Defence.

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