What is Sarin Gas

Chemistry can be pretty great it can also be really, really terrible. I believe that science is like a hammer, it can be used to build or to destroy. I hate that it is sometimes used to destroy, but humanity is a difficult force to control. Today on SciShow news we discuss Sarin gas, the nerve angent that was used in the recent attacks in Syria. [opening music] Okay, so we tend to think of our muscles as being actively 'on' and inactively 'off' but in fact both the 'on' and 'off' stages require an active step. When you tell your muscles to flex, Acetylcholine, a neural transmitter, floods around your muscle cells telling them to contract. When your brain tells the muscles to stop contracting, the acetylcholine has to be removed, this is done with Acetylcholinesterase an enzyme that breaks down the acetylcholine into its constituent parts allowing your muscles to relax. These steps occur every time your flex and relax any muscle in your body, every blink of your eye, every time you click a mouse, every beat of your heart. Last weekend the U.N. confirmed the the Syrian government used the nerve agent Sarin on civilians in Damascus last month. Sarin kills by bonding with Acetylcholineserase, completely changing it's physical structure. With the enzyme non-functional, acetylcholine is thus never removed, it never breaks down so instead of muscles flexing and relaxing, they can only flex and flex more, and flex more. Everything from your pupils to your fingers cramp completely rigid. The muscles burn with exaustion but cannot relax, the pain is terrible. If enough of the agent enters the bloodstream, usually through lungs or skin, it will cause cramping of the diaphragm, which locks the lungs in place, and the victim will asphyxiate. Sarin was created in Germany, just as World War 2 was breaking out, by scientists attempting to create pesticides for use in agriculture. But with the war, it turned out to be something of a dream agent for killing It's odousless, colourless, very volatile - meaning that it evaporates quickly and so can easily enter the lungs It kills quickly and unlike traditional warfare, it doesn't damage infrastructure This has lead to Sarin gas being called, 'the poor man's neutron bomb': Great at killing every living thing and leaving everything like powerlines and buildings and water pipes left for the invading army to use. The one good thing about Sarin, when compared to other chemical weapons: people who survive attacks tend to fully recover, other classes of chemical weapons like choking agents which can permanently scar lung tissue, and blister agents which, yes, are as bad as they sound, can leave people permanently and painfully disabled. Sarin also degrades quickly after use, in fact it's shelf life is so short that it's often created from precursor chemicals on the ground as it's used. Soon after being used, Sarin breaks down into harmless chemicals and weeks after an attack it is impossible to determine that the gas was ever even present. In this case, though, U.N. investigators were able to detect traces of Sarin using Gas Chromatographs and and Mass Spectrometers. We know enough about our nervous systems now that we have developed antidotes that can stop Sarin from interfering with enzymes but they're only effective when taken immediately after exposure, which is generally extremely impractical. Sarin's effectiveness in killing, and the fact that it kills indiscriminately, and in a very painful way is why is has been classified as a Weapon of Mass Destruction and banned from use in warfare. We at SciShow and also, I assume, all other sane people agree that banning chemical weapons makes sense. I feel personally offended every time chemistry is used to kill someone but I don't get to choose the moment in time which humanity stops being terrible I just get to keep hoping for it, I guess. Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow News I guarantee you that science right now is being used to do great and amazing things and not to kill people, and we'll talk more about that next week. If you want to keep up to date on the science of the news, you can go to youtube.com/scishow and subscribe. [end music]