A Russian former double agent and his daughter, along with a courageous police officer who tried his best to assist, are poisoned by secret chemicals which also critically endangered the lives of those who tried to help them in a story full of intrigue and international politics. Sounds like a movie plot right? Yet recent events in a historic English town more famous for some impressive standing stones than being the location for tales of espionage and assassination has got us all talking.
With the disturbing confirmation that a nerve agent was used to poison the seriously ill victims, many of us will be asking: what are nerve agents and how can we protect ourselves? As Det Sgt Bailey said on his discharge from hospital, “normal life for me will probably never be the same”
Nerve agents is a collective term for several highly toxic chemical poisons which affect the human body by attacking the nervous system in the same way. They disrupt and destroy nerve signals to muscles and organs, causing loss of control over body functions and sending the body into ‘overdrive’. Muscles become paralysed, leading to death through asphyxiation or cardiac arrest. These substances work fast, some taking seconds to take effect, leading to an agonising death, usually within 30 minutes.
Physically, they are colourless and tasteless liquids (at room temperature) which are toxic through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact. Some are odourless as well. Tiny amounts are sufficient to kill. They are not naturally occurring substances, they are man-made, originally developed in research for new insecticides but when their potency was realised, they became the focus for military research and development in various countries as chemical weapons.
While there are international conventions for the production and storage of chemical weapons under the watch of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), there are many countries with the capacity to manufacture them. Not all of them will necessarily agree or abide to the same terms as others and the very nature of chemical weapons development is secretive and politically sensitive.
There are several known separate nerve agent compounds and possibly more exist but are unknown as yet. The average person has probably only heard of some of these substances; Sarin which was used in a terrorist attack in Japan in 1995 and more recently in Syria as well as VX which was used to assassinate the North Korean leader’s half brother at a Malaysian airport last year. And now of course, Novichok.
The probability of a repeat of the situation where a UK citizen, on UK soil, is poisoned by a nerve agent is still very, very small but not impossible as the Salisbury incident has proved. How could you determine if someone was ill through nerve agent poisoning and how should you react?
The initial symptoms of exposure to nerve agents may start with runny nose and eyes, tightness in the chest and the pupils of the eyes significantly contracting. As the effects take hold, more symptoms will follow: convulsions, sweating, salivation, involuntary urination and defecation, eyes watering, stomach pain and vomiting. Eventually it will proceed to muscle jerks and spasms, seizures and death by cardiac arrest or respiratory failure.
Should you ever be the victim of a nerve agent, you probably won’t realise it until the symptoms start, by which point there may be little you can do. There is an antidote, atropine, but it does need to be administered very quickly and it won’t reverse any damage already done. If you are capable, make sure you get away from the area of release and quickly remove clothing that may be contaminated. Any articles that are normally removed over the head should be cut off the torso to prevent additional contact. Put clothing into a plastic bag, seal it and await further instruction for proper disposal. Remove any other items such as contact lenses and treat the same as clothing. Wash well with soap and water, do not use anything stronger, like bleach as it may react. Seek immediate medical attention.
Unfortunately, due to their sheer toxicity, there is little that the inexperienced person can do in a situation where it is suspected that nerve agents may be involved. In a non-conflict time and place, it still may be more likely that there is another cause for a sudden onset of the above symptoms. Unless you are a trained responder, if you come across a person potentially affected by nerve agents, you should not touch them or even make contact with objects they may have touched as you could be exposed too. Keep your distance, no matter how difficult it might be to stand by. Instead, phone the emergency services and clearly explain all symptoms, any suspicions and any evidence so that they can send appropriately trained and protected help.
Sadly, it is too early to tell what the long term consequences are for Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Judge David Williams, of the Court of Protection, said last week that it was unclear if they would fully recover from the nerve agent attack, and that their mental capacity may have been compromised to an “unknown” degree.