Here is what you need to know about nerve gas in relation to the events in Salisbury. Nerve gases are a terrible and frightening weapon but, if you survive an attack, you will be OK, unlike after a conventional injury which may leave you without a limb or full of shrapnel.
For much of my professional life, I have flirted with nerve gases. A dangerous thing to do you might think but interesting and important as recent events in Salisbury have shown.
It all began when an alarming report reached MI6 during the Cold War in 1980 that one-third of all Soviet Russia’s bombs, shells and missiles contained nerve gas or similar chemicals. We had to prepare ourselves to deal with it if necessary. I assisted with some of the work at that time and recently dealt with many OP poisonings in Sri Lanka.
Nerve gases were first produced in secret by Nazi Germany starting in 1935. We had no clue about this and were totally unprepared during World War II but, luckily for us, they were not used. Two of the nerve gases, Tabun and Sarin, also known by initials GA and GB were produced by the hundreds of tons in a factory in Silesia. The factory was subsequently captured intact by the Soviets and moved into Russia. The West began intensive research into counter-measures.
Nerve gases are part of a large group of chemical compounds called organophosphates (OP). Some of these are useful in medicine, many as insecticides, as fire retardants, plasticisers, lubricants and in paint manufacture. Others are useful intermediates in the manufacture of a variety of chemicals including margarine.
Nerve gases are not gases, but volatile liquids absorbed through the skin, the eyes, and by mouth. As they evaporate, the vapour enters the lungs.
Once you know that, you know the main counter-measures. Move cross-wind to avoid the vapour plume holding your breath if you can and then get into a shower, lake or river quickly and fully clothed; then take off your clothes. Water breaks down nerve gases as well as diluting them and, if you can add a little bleach, Sodium Hypochlorite, so much the better. It’s not difficult. Why weren’t the good citizens of Salisbury told to do that straight away?
Nerve gases are controlled by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC 1997) enforced by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons based in The Hague. One hundred and ninety-two states have signed and accepted (ratified) the treaty. Exceptions include Israel (signed but not ratified), Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan and Palestine. Syria signed recently but it seems stockpiles are still available and are being used. Iraq has signed but some stocks are now in the hands of ISIS.
Among the countries who admit to having the facilities to make nerve gas are UK, USA, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Bosnia, Syria, and Serbia and one presumes, North Korea.
As soon as there is a law, people look for a way around it. One way is that CWC did not cover the common chemicals, Chlorine nor white Phosphorus. Another way, and one being actively pursued by Russia even as it signed the CWC treaty, it to make a binary weapon.
Binary weapons involve making two compounds, G and B, neither of which are illegal. Combine them together and they produce GB or Sarin. Variations on this theme make nerve gases easier to handle, safer and to have a longer shelf life.
On the battlefield, there are nerve gas detectors. Some detect plumes of gas but cannot tell what the gas is. Others will detect OPs but not whether it is a nerve gas or an insecticide. They work on volatile liquids and gases. Novichok, used in Salisbury, is a powder.
Novichok, the new kid on the block.
Novichok, the new Russian nerve agent is not a gas, it was designed to circumvent the CWC treaty by being solid. There are 100 or so variants of it. It was designed to be undetectable by NATO nerve gas detectors, to penetrate protective clothing by being persistent and to be safer for the operatives to handle. The Russians lied about their nerve agents, but we were tipped off about their lies by Vil Mirsayanov who was arrested for treason but eventually released and ended up in the USA. He had wisely only disclosed the lies, not the nature of the agent nor where it was produced.
The Novichok attack in Salisbury was a failure. The intended target, Sergei Skripal is still alive, and he and his daughter should survive. Most deaths from OP poisoning occur within 7 days. We have managed to discover what the agent is chemically and a smart doctor in Salisbury recognised the symptoms of OP poisoning and gave the appropriate treatment promptly.