Chemical weapons: What they are and how they kill
Western powers are preparing for possible strikes against Syria over the purported use of chemical weapons last week that activists and an aid group say killed at least 300 people in the suburbs of Damascus.
As President Obama spoke Friday of a "limited" attack on the Middle Eastern nation, his administration released a declassified U.S. assessment of Syria's suspected use of nerve agents on Aug. 21 against its own people, with an estimate of nearly 1,500 dead.
The Syrian opposition blames President Bashar al-Assad's regime for the attack. The government denies the charges and instead accuses the rebels of staging the assault to try to implicate the regime.
As a team of United Nations experts investigates in the country, here's a look at some of the chemical weapons that experts believe are in the Syrian government's arsenal:
— NERVE AGENTS
The most toxic of the chemical weapons, nerve agents affect the nervous system and are hazardous in their liquid and gas states. They can be delivered in missiles, bombs, rockets, artillery shells and other large munitions.
The Syrian regime is believed to possess tabun, sarin and VX.
Absorbed through the skin or inhaled, these agents can — within seconds or minutes depending on the dose — cause extreme runny nose and salivation, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and convulsions. Death is generally caused by paralysis of the respiratory system, which causes the victim to suffocate.
According to the U.S. assessment, "(t)he reported symptoms of (Aug. 21) victims included unconsciousness, foaming from the nose and mouth, constricted pupils, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing."
Exposure to sarin can cause all of those symptoms in addition to causing convultions, paralysis and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
German scientists developed the first nerve agents as pesticides before and during World War II, although the Nazis did not use them during the war.
According to declassified CIA memos uncovered last week, Iraq's Saddam Hussein was the first to overtly use nerve agents as weapons of war, deploying them against Iranian forces in 1984. Hussein reportedly used them on several more occassions, most notoriously during what came to be known as the Halajba Massacre that killed up to 5,000 souls in a Kurdish village in Northern Iraq.
— MUSTARD GAS
One of the best-known chemical weapons, mustard gas is a blister agent that attacks the eyes and skin, causing severe blisters and agonizing chemical burns. If inhaled, it can also damage the mucous membranes, the lungs and other organs.
The gas does not cause immediate symptoms, which means those exposed to it can unknowingly take high dosages. The more severe effects are preceded by itching. Though it can cause blindness and death, exposure to mustard gas is generally not fatal.
Mustard gas was first used by the German army in World War I against British forces, many of whom noted the distinctly garlicky scent of the gas. According to the recently discovered CIA memos, Saddam Hussein deployed mustard gas against Iranians, killing thousands in 1983 near Panjwin in Northern Iraq.