Syria’s Chemical Weapon

August 21st, was just another ordinary day for me to go home early. No baseball practice, no after school activities no nothing. It was great. I got back home and as usual opened my laptop to read some up-to-date headlines on my Korean portal website. The most viewed news was called Syrian Chemical attack. So, I was interested because I knew that chemical weapons are banned internationally. The situation was devastating. It killed thousands of people and apparently they used forbidden chemical weapons. This fact would not have put much impact in my thought until I saw that most of them were innocent civilians. Now, to look at more detailed account of this situation, I browsed BBC. “US secretary of State John Kerry says the US knows the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack in Damascus, which he says killed 1429 people”. Here “the dead included 426 children” (Kerry, 2013). This attack is still full of ambiguity. “The debate continues over exactly what happened and who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Syrians in the early hours of 21 August.” America including other Western nations claims the regime as culprit, but the regime it self is denying and is saying it was the rebels. Now I thought, chemicals can be a serious trauma, so I decided to look at this critical chemical that ruined the lives of many.

(Ya Libnan) Syria Chemical Attack
(Ya Libnan) Syria Chemical Attack

So what kind of chemical weapon is used in Syria specifically and why are they so devastating to human health? Because, nobody was at the place of chemical attack, it is hard to articulate what chemical was used, but “the supply could include sarin, mustard, and VX gases” (Yan, 2012) one can estimate by the magnitude of death, these chemical gases were used.

(Britannica Image Quest)
(Britannica Image Quest)

What is Sarin? “Sarin is a human-made chemical warfare agent classified as a nerve agent. Nerve agents are the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents. They are similar to certain kinds of insecticides (insect killers) called organophosphates in terms of how they work and what kind of harmful effects they cause. However, nerve agents are much more potent than organophosphate pesticides.” (CDC). It is composed of C4H10FO2P and how does it effect is by blocking enzyme acetyl cholinesterase, found in synapse and nerve endings. It breaks hydrolyses the neurotransmitter so that the never impulse is only passed down once attained. When enzyme is inhibited acetylcholine accumulates at nerve endings giving one to be paralyzed and to asphyxiation. (CDC). Sarin is danger because it is like “fly like a butterfly, but sting like a bee”, it is colorless and odor less. So one must look for the symptoms to detect whether they are exposed to Sarin or not. However, there is a step called a decontamination, which neutralizes the contaminated air by Sarin or other chemically dangerous gas. Hydrolysis reaction is used. Here it is a reaction with water. How does this reaction decontaminate? Because Sarin hydrolyzes with water readily and half-life in water is known as 5.4 hours using alkaline solutions would decontaminate way faster. (cbwinfo). Therefore, towelettes moistened with NaOH dissolved in water, phenol, and ammonia would be a good way to decontaminate (CDC).


Economic implication is deadly. Some say the chemicals are easy to acquire, but it will be hard to make it. However, all one need to make these deadly chemical is just a chemistry lab in schools. Moreover, how to make it is not available on any website, and this shows how governments and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is taking a great care to prevent terrorism. As it happened in Japan twice in 1994 and 1995, one cannot be always sure that one is safe as long as one has a handkerchief with NaOH to prevent themselves from these attacks.

Works Cited:

Sarin Nerve Gas Molecule. [Photograph]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest.

CBWInfo. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Yan, H. (2012, 12 7). Syria’s chemical weapon potential: What is it, and what are the health risks? . Retrieved from

Hanna, J. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Kerry, J. (2013, August 30). Kerry: Syria chemical weapons attack killed 1,429. Retrieved from

CDC. (n.d.). Retrieved from

3 thoughts on “Syria’s Chemical Weapon

  1. Cyanide Gas

    After reading Won Yong’s post on using Sarin gas as a chemical weapon, I was reminded of a poem I read in IB Literature titled, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” by Wilfred Owen. The title of the poem was part of the latin phrase, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which in English means, “it is sweet and right to die for your country.” This poem depicted fatigued World War I soldiers who were ambushed by a gas attack on their way back to camp. After conducting research on chemical weapons, I had found hydrogen cyanide was one of the many gases used during World War I (Wikipedia, n.d.). This further reminded me of all the spy movies I watched where spies would often carry cyanide pills, also known as suicide pills, which they would consume, when they are captured, to quickly end their lives and prevent leakage of significant information (Wikipedia, n.d.). After researching the many applications of cyanide in wars, I wanted to understand the effects of cyanide on the body and its prevalence and applications today.
    Cyanide compounds are inorganic or organic compounds that contain monovalent CN groups (cyano groups). In inorganic compounds, cyanide ions can act ligands that can donate a lone pair of electrons to form a coordinate covalent bond with d-block metal ions to create complex ions. Organic cyanide compounds, often known as nitriles, contain a CN group covalently bonded to a carbon-containing group, such as a methyl group (CH3) (Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.).
    The hydrogen cyanide compound (HCN), or hydrocyanic acid, used in World War I is a highly volatile liquid with a boiling point only 25.6˚C (New Mexico Environment Department, 1997). This means that at room temperature, the extremely toxic hydrocyanic acid exist in a gaseous state. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that most cyanide compounds are rapidly acting, deadly chemicals that can be detrimental a person’s health if it is consumed (CDC, 2013). It is stated that, “Liquid or gaseous hydrogen cyanide and alkali salts of cyanide can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion or absorption through the eyes and skin,” (International Cyanide Management Code, n.d.).

    Image 1: Structural Formula of Hydrogen Cyanide (Ophardt, C, 2003)

    When cyanide enters the body, the compounds travel via the bloodstream and into cells where they interrupt the production of ATP by bonding to the cytochromes found in the mitochondria. Without cytochromes, the cells cannot utilize the oxygen in the blood stream, resulting in cellular asphyxiation. The lack of oxygen also triggers the cells to transition the method of ATP production from aerobic to anaerobic, creating and accumulating lactic acid in the blood. Cellular asphyxiation and the build up of lactic acid eventually damage the central nervous system, organs, the heart, and other body systems, which result in respiratory arrest and death (International Cyanide Management Code, n.d.).
    Although cyanide may seem toxic to the human body, cyanide compounds are actually commonly found, and sometimes beneficial, in food, nature, and manufacturing industries. In nature, cyanide can be produced by certain bacteria, fungi and algae. In addition, cyanides can also be found in seeds of fruits such as apricots, apples and peaches, by binding to sugar molecules to form cyanogenic glycosides as a way to protect the plant from herbivores. (Wikipedia, n.d.) In manufacturing industries, cyanide is an essential in the production of paper, textiles and plastics. Cyanide salts are also for electroplating, metal cleaning, and purifying gold from its ore. Even today, cyanide gas is still being to exterminate pests and vermin from ships, buildings, and homes (CDC, 2013).

    Image 2: Skeletal Structure of a Cyanogenic Glycoside.

    After researching the prevalence of cyanide in our environments and the food we consume, I wonder why we are not affected by cyanide and its effects on our body. According to the Department of Health of New York State, we are constantly exposed to cyanide in small, non-toxic quantities. Our body deals with these small quantities of cyanide by reacting cyanide with sulfur to form a less toxic compound called, thiosulfate (SCN-), which is expelled out the body through urine (Department of Health, 2004). Furthermore, our body can also use the small quantities of cyanide to form vitamin B12.

    Formula 1: Reaction Between Cyanide and Sulfur:
    8 CN− + S8 → 8 SCN−

    An implication of understanding prevalence of cyanide is that it raises awareness of the dangers of cigarette smoking. Cyanide is one of the many toxic chemicals found in a cigarette (Martin, T., 2008). It suggests that heavy smokers are not only susceptible to lung cancer, but also cyanide poisoning. In addition, it emphasis the dangers of second smoke because not only will smoking expose the smoker to hydrogen cyanide gas, but also expose the people around them. Furthermore, understanding the dangers of cyanide exposure raises safety concerns for people that work in manufacturing industries that involves the use of cyanide. Extra safety precautions must be taken in order to maintain the safety of the workers. Lastly, researching cyanide showed me that just because chemicals have been used negatively in the past does not mean that it cannot be beneficial and useful today. Although cyanide compounds have been used for chemical warfare, it has proven to be effective today as a key component in the paper, textile, plastic and metal industries.

    Reference List:

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, July 27). Facts About Cyanide.
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    . Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

    Encyclopædia Britannica (n.d.). Cyanide. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved
    January 19, 2014, from

    Department of Health (2004). The Facts About Cyanides. Department of Health:
    Information for a Healthy New York.
    Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

    International Cyanide Management Code (n.d.). Human Health Effects.
    International Cyanide Management Code. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

    Martin, T. (2008, July 9) Hydrogen Cyanide in Cigarette Smoke. About Health: Smoking Cessation. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

    New Mexico Environment Department (1997, September). Cyanide Compounds.
    New Mexico Environment Department. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

    Wikipedia (n.d.). Chemical Weapons in World War I. Wikipedia. Retrieved
    January 19, 2014, from

    Wikipedia (n.d.) Cyanide. Wikipedia. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

    Wikipedia (n.d.) Suicide Pill. Wikipedia. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

    Amygdalin. [Electronic Image] (n.d.) Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

    Hydrogen Cyanide. [Electronic Image] (2003) Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

  2. Everyone should need no introduction to the bloodstained civil war being waged in Syria. With an estimated and rapidly increasing 3.5 million internally displaced peoples, 100,000 dead, and over million children homeless it is evident that the conflict’s repercussions are ubiquitous in the region. (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2013) After reading a Telegraph article on the method Syrian Chemical Weapons stockpiles were to be destroyed I was immediately reminded of Wonyong’s blog post on Sarin. Considering the number of heartbreaking statistics, horrendous tragedies, and swell of recent human interest, the lack of foreign intervention has always struck me as strange. That was the case until the incident detailed in Wonyong’s post, the use of Chemical weapons by the Syrian government on a suburb in Damascus on August 21st, 2013. Crossing the U.S.’s line in the sand and breaking the UN Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) (United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs), Syria had to make a deal to surrender it’s stockpiles of chemical weapons to an international coalition for subsequent destruction abroad.

    Through Wonyong’s post we got a sense of the danger of this variety of weapon, and through Tim’s response we saw that while deadly, the basic components of even the most dangerous chemical like hydrogen cyanide can be used in helpful applications. However, with the situation that Syria is in where there are “stockpile[s] of numerous chemical agents, including mustard, Sarin, and VX” (Office of the Press Secretary, 2013) and the only mitigating and internationally acceptable option is destruction, what are the chemical process that the U.S. and other proponents intend to use? Now having kept up with the news reports coming out of the region, I’ve seen the claim “neutralized by reactions involving reagents” (Engineer, 2014) several times, but each time wondered what does it entail specifically? Thus, exploring how chemical weapons are neutralized via chemical hydrolysis seemed like an appropriate starting point.

    Image 1: FDHS System

    In chemical hydrolysis the purpose is to remove the immediate destructivity of the chemical weapons by reacting them with water and a base (commonly sodium hydroxide) to create products with significantly lowered toxicity. The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) is the U.S. answer to the urgency of the situation. With the ability to be deployed from scratch in 10 days, including on the MV Cape Ray, a 648-foot tanker, in the middle of the Mediterranean Ocean, the FDHS has been lauded to be a fully self-sufficient system with its own laboratory, waste containers, and generators. (Gunter, 2014) (Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction Business Unit, 2013) Using its 2200-gallon titanium reactor (Dunjohn, 2013) the FDHS reacts the chemical agent (sarin), at atmospheric pressure, with a heated aqueous solution of sodium hydroxide (with the heat and base there to catalyze the reaction between the water and the organophosphorus compound). (CDC, 2013) The nucleophiles, water and hydroxide, break down the P-F bond creating a significantly less toxic phosphate compound, the inorganic salt sodium fluoride, and water. (Soderberg) (Committee on Review and Evaluation of the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal System, Board on Army Science and Technology, Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems & National Research Council, 1994) The neutralization process however seems to be less effective with other kinds of chemical weapons, specifically military grade mustard and blistering agents, because of their more diverse compositions. With prolonged storage, mustard agents undergo an auto polymerization reaction that complicates the species greatly and creates a mixture of products when hydrolyzed that is difficult to dispose of. (Committee on Review and Evaluation of the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal System, Board on Army Science and Technology, Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems & National Research Council, 1994)

    Image 2: Hydrolysis of Sarin

    Neutralization however, isn’t the only means of disposing of chemical weapons. With incineration, as one might imagine, the goal is utter elimination of the chemical agent in its entirety. The high heat of the “base-line” incineration system, a two-chamber system of 2700 F and 2000 F respectively (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), is able to overcome the strong intramolecular covalent bonds between the chemical agents, decomposing them entirely. The generated fumes and gases are then scrubbed while the casing and explosives are thermally treated to sterilize them. (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons)

    Both options carry with numerous economic, safety, and political implications. While chemical hydrolysis can be done relatively safely onboard naval ships in international waters, incineration requires a purposely-built facility that can withstand the taxing conditions of the procedure. But on the other hand it has been seen that chemical hydrolysis might not be the most assured method of “irreversibly” destroying chemical weapons and does not boast the “99.9999 percent destruction and full mineralization of organic compounds” (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) of complete incineration. Remember here that there are strict regulations that state the organic chemical agent must be “converted to carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic salts, which may be stored safely in a landfill.” (Committee on Review and Evaluation of the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal System, Board on Army Science and Technology, Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems & National Research Council, 1994) But given that speed and efficiency are paramount in this situation, it might not be viable or realistic to transfer the estimated 1000 tones of stockpiled chemical weapons to incineration sites in the U.S.

    Since the international community has chosen to commence with a combination of chemical hydrolysis and commercial disposal of less-dangerous chemical agents it is important to note the attention they have given to safety. The FDHS supposedly is outfitted with various redundancy systems to ensure the operator’s safety as well as a full decontamination station. (Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction Business Unit, 2013) As redundancy is usually seen as a negative trait it is interesting to it being so prized in this situation. Finally I can’t help but think of the old argument for military research, technological innovation comes as a result of military discoveries retrofitted for civilian use. Just like GPS was originally a Department of Defense project or the internet benefited greatly from DARPA research, what possible implications could the FDHS system have for the greater society?

    Reference List:

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, June 25). Methods Used to Destroy Chemical Warfare Agents. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

    Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction Business Unit. (2013). The field deployable hydrolysis system. CBARR News, 1(8), Retrieved from

    Committee on Review and Evaluation of the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal System. , Board on Army Science and Technology, , Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems, , & National Research Council, (1994). Recommendations for the disposal of chemical agents and munitions. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press. Retrieved from

    (Committee on Review and Evaluation of the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal System, Board on Army Science and Technology, Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems & National Research Council, 1994)

    Dunjohn, C. (2013, September 12). Us army rolls out a mobile chemical weapons neutralizer. Retrieved from

    Engineer, C. (2014, January 02). Bound for syria: Us unveils device which will help destroy syria’s chemical arsenal . Retrieved from

    Gunter, J. (2014, January 09). How syria’s chemical weapons are being destroyed. Retrieved from

    Office of the Press Secretary. (2013, August 30). Government assessment of the syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on august 21, 2013. Retrieved from

    Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. (n.d.). Destruction technologies. Retrieved from

    Soderberg, T. (n.d.). Section 12.4: Esters. Retrieved from

    United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2013, August 23). A million children are now refugees from syria crisis. Retrieved from

    United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. (n.d.). Chemical weapons. Retrieved from

  3. After reading Won Yong’s post of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I was reminded of “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, a well-known poem written by war poet Wilfred Owen. The poem describes a gas attack in WWI and its harmful effects of the soldiers. After reading the poem again, I realised that the name of the gas used was not mentioned in the poem. I also wondered why the soldier who died in the gas attack experienced a drowning sensation when he breathed the gas? Therefore, I decided to do some research to answer my questions. It turned out that although the poem did not mention the name of the gas, the description of the gas provides a clear indication of the gas. In the poem, the author mentions seeing a “thick green light”. From this description it is immediately obvious that the gas was chlorine gas. The name chlorine dervives from the greek word khlōros, which means “green” (Ruse and Hornby, 1988). The second question I had was why did the person who died from the chlorine gas experienced a drowning sensation. This is because when chlorine gas is inhaled into the lungs of a victim, it immediately reacts with the moisture in the lung tissue to form the extremely corrosive hydrochloric acid (HCl), which damages the lung tissue, leading to pulmonary oedema, which is the build up of excessive fluids in the lungs (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013). 2Cl2 + 2H2O → 4HCl + O2
    This leads to the drowning effect, as the victim basically chokes to death as a result of the excess fluid in the lungs. The chlorine also reacts with the moisture in the eyes, resulting in temporary blindness. Further research also reveals that chlorine is also in numerous other poisonous gases, such as mustard gas (C4H8Cl2S), which was mentioned in Won Yong’s article as one of the gases used in the current Syrian conflict. Mustard gas causes chemical burns when it comes in contact with the person’s skin, resulting in the formation of large painful blisters as a result of the formation of HCl (UC Davis, 2014). The chemical burns may become so severe that it results in death. Mustard gas is also a carcinogenic substance. Although mustard gas is not a halogenalkane, it has 2 carbon-chlorine bonds located at the “ends” (UC Davis, 2014). Because of the electronegativity difference the carbon atom has a slightly positive charge while the chlorine atom has a slightly negative charge. When mustard gas comes in contact with the nucleophilic amino groups of DNA a nucleophilic substitution reaction occurs. The negative chlorine atom is displaced, and the resulting unstable intermediate bonds with the DNA, causing mutations that can lead to cancer (UC Davis, 2014). However, it is important to note that chlorine is also beneficial. Almost anyone who has been to a swimming pool will recongnise the distinctive smell of the water. That smell comes from the chemical Hypochloric acid (HOCl), which is added to swimming pools and tap water as a disinfectant (Calomiris & Christman, 1998). According to Scientific American, waterborne diseases such as thyroid fever, was virtually wiped out when tap water started being treated with HOCl (Calomiris & Christman, 1998). However, up till this day, scientists still do not know the mechanism that allows HOCl to kill pathogens such as bacteria. However, they believe that the chlorine reacts with the lipids in the bacteria’s cell membrane and the amino acids in its DNA, causing them to loose their structure and therefore lead to the death of bacteria (Calomiris & Christman, 1998). In conclusion, the implication of understanding the beneficial and harmful effects of chlorine is that people realise the importance of using chemicals properly. If used properly, chlorine acts as an effective disinfectant, and if not, can be deadly to humans. It also raises an ethical issue of whether scientists should be held responsible for developing these harmful chemical weapons.

    Ruse, C., & Hornby, A. MS. (1988). The Oxford Dictionary of Current English for Malaysian Students. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, April 10). Facts About Chlorine. Retrieved from
    UC Davis. (2014, February 22). 24.4 Common Classes of Organic Reactions. Retrieved from
    Calomiris, J., & Christman, K. (1998, May 4). How does chlorine added to drinking water kill bacteria and other harmful organsims? Why doesen’t it harm us?. Retrieved from

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