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bellingcat – Anatomy of a Sarin Bomb Explosion (Part II)


Part I describes the basic behaviour and intended function of an air-delivered gravity bomb containing Sarin, designed along US/USSR cold war lines. When we left off in Part I, a well-crafted gravity bomb will have dispensed its Sarin broadly along this distribution:

  • Aerosol: The majority of the contents will have been dispensed as a finely divided mist of small droplets.
  • Vapour: A small amount of Sarin will be in vapour state from the elevated temperature of the explosion.
  • Liquid: Some Sarin will be in liquid form in the crater and immediate vicinity of the explosion, having been dispersed in drops too big to form an aerosol. Other bits of liquid are likely to be on the surface of fragments of the bomb.
  • Destroyed/Decomposed: A non-trivial percentage of the Sarin will have been destroyed by the explosion, or even have degraded before the bomb was used.

How does Sarin Work?

Sarin, also commonly known by its old NATO nickname GB, is one of a family of chemical warfare agents known as nerve agents.   It was invented by German scientists in 1938-1939 who were performing research on organophosphorous pesticides led by Dr. Gerhard Schrader. Sarin was named by the team of researchers who invented it. It is in a family of chemicals known as organophosphates. There are other chemicals within this family, including the chemical warfare agents Tabun, Soman, VX, and the pesticides Malathion, Parathion, and Amiton.

All of the nerve agents affect the human body’s nervous system. The human nervous system requires a delicate balance of chemicals to regulate itself. Nerve agents bind to a chemical known as acetylcholinesterase and, in doing so, disrupt the electrochemical reactions required for the body to operate properly. The binding of acetylcholinesterase leads to a build-up of acetylcholine, which then in turn leads to a syndrome called a “cholinergic crisis”. In effect, the nervous system starts to over-act and muscles and glands start to work over-time and cause serious problems. The signs and symptoms will vary in severity and timeline depending on the route of exposure and dose (i.e. the amount of Sarin absorbed). This will be discussed at length below.

Routes of Exposure: How can Sarin enter the human body?

There are several ways Sarin can enter the human body. These are called “routes of exposure” and are as follows:

  • Respiratory: Sarin in vapour or aerosol form can be inhaled.
  • Ocular: Sarin can be absorbed by the eyes.
  • Dermal: Sarin in liquid form, or a very high concentration of aerosol or vapour (many times higher than that which is lethal through inhalation).
  • Via Wound: Through a disruption in the skin. This would generally only occur if Sarin in liquid form was on a fragment or sharp object and it entered into the human body. This is a rare scenario.
  • Gastrointestinal: Sarin can enter the body if ingested. This would happen if it was in food or drink, for example. However, Sarin rapidly degrades in the presence of water…

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