History of Sarin

By: Johnny Stumpff

History of Sarin: A Brief Look at the
History of Chemical Warfare

intertwined with humanity’s continuous march of progress is the increasingly
gruesome demands of modern warfare. As competing empires and/or military
organizations vie for dominance on the battlefield, they often abandon their
humanity in pursuit of a more potent and effective weapon to eradicate their
enemies. Of the weapons created for this goal, chemical weapons are some of the
most notorious. For nearly all of modern history, humans have been fascinated
with the murderous potential of chemical weapons, even before the world fully
understood the chemical structures and properties underlying them. Erin
Blakemore, a journalist for History.com, furthers, “From poisoned arrows to
deadly gases, chemicals have been deployed in warfare since Roman times.”
(Blakemore). Since the reign of the Roman empire, dangerous chemicals have
retained their appeal, evolving into game-changing components of great-power
war, terrorism, and assassination. One notable example of a chemical weapon
that has changed the course of human history and warfare is the organophosphate
nerve agent sarin (also known as sarin gas, GB, C4H10FO2P, or isopropyl

developed as a pesticide by the German chemical and pharmaceutical company I.G.
Farben in 1938, sarin epitomizes the inherent risk behind technological
innovation; even seemingly innocent inventions can be coopted to become the
deadliest weapons when put in the wrong hands. Gerhard Schrader, the primary
German scientist to have discovered this substance, found that his mixture of
phosphorus and cyanide was far too toxic to be used in German farms as a
pesticide, but I.G. Farben decided to inform the German military about his
discovery. Since sarin was discovered just one year before World War II, this
nerve gas, whose name is an acronym of the last names of its founders,
immediately gained the attention of the German military, who demanded its
immediate mass production. Despite this, the story of sarin’s early discovery
ends unexpectedly with the German military actually refraining from any
deployment of this neurotoxin on the battlefield. There are multiple theories
that attempt to explain Hitler’s choice to refrain from using sarin on the
battlefield. Some historians argue that it may come from his traumatic
experiences of mustard gas in World War I, but, given Hitler’s merciless and
horrific usage of Zyklon B in concentration camps, it is more likely that he
refrained from using sarin to avoid the possibility of The Allies using it
against his troops in retaliation. 

              The fact
that sarin was feared by even history’s most ruthless individuals, such as
Adolf Hitler, can be explained by its chemistry. Sarin is completely tasteless,
odorless, and highly volatile, which means that it evaporates very easily. Just
a few drops of sarin, transmitted through absorption on the skin or inhalation,
is enough to kill a human in minutes. This is because sarin interferes with the
body’s transmission of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is critical to
muscle movement. Whenever the brain sends a message to move or contract a
muscle, the axon terminals of neurons release acetylcholine into the synapse
(the gap between the axon terminal of one neuron and the dendrite of another)
to be received by receptors on the dendrites of another neuron. After
acetylcholine has been transmitted and the message has been sent to contract
one’s muscles, the acetylcholine must be removed so that the excitation of the
receiving neuron can be stopped. In order to get rid of this acetylcholine, an
enzyme called acetylcholinesterase uses hydrolysis to break it down into acetic
acid and choline, which gets recycled to produce more acetylcholine later. This
is where sarin comes in: at the molecular level, sarin binds to the
acetylcholinesterase molecule, which makes it so that acetylcholine can no
longer be hydrolyzed. Anne Helmenstine, an expert with a Ph.D in biomedical
sciences explains, “Sarin forms a covalent bond with the serine residue at the
active site on the cholinesterase molecule, making it unable to bind to
acetylcholine” (Helmenstine). This process of forcing acetylcholinesterase
molecules into an irreversible state of biological inactivity is detrimental to
the human body. Without acetylcholinesterase, the body is not able to ‘clean
up’ the acetylcholine being transmitted between neurons, which forces the
muscles into a perpetual state of contraction. While this process will affect
most of the muscles in the body of someone exposed to sarin, the deadliest
implications come from the dysfunctionality of the lungs. When acetylcholine
persists and acetylcholinesterase is not able to clean it up, the lungs will be
unable to contract and relax in a way that is necessary to support breathing,
thus subjecting sarin’s victims to death from asphyxiation.

               Sarin has substantially affected the course of
history by claiming the lives of thousands of people and playing a major role
in military and terrorist activities across the globe.  The first notable case study in regard to
sarin’s military deployment is the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.
Iraqi troops attacked Iranian border towns with a wide variety of chemical
weapons including mustard gas and several nerve agents including tabun and
sarin. One key factor to keep in mind is that, although international
conventions such as the Geneva Protocol theoretically banned the usage of these
weapons, the United States supported Iraq in the usage of chemical weapons
against Iranian civilians. One of the most tragic instances of nerve agent use
in this war was the Halabja chemical attack, an assault that killed more than
3000 civilians who attempted to seek shelter. Another significant example of
sarin’s use was seen just a decade ago in the 2013 chemical attack on Ghouta in
the Syrian civil war. Ameenah Sawwan, a survivor of this horrific event,
describes the horror afflicted onto the victims of sarin: “They were spasming
violently, foaming at the mouth, and their eyes were rolling back. There was a
man hosing them down with water but they looked like they were close to death” (Sawwan).
This attack, sponsored by the Assad-led Syrian regime, claimed the lives of
1127 people. Even more, terrorist organizations such as Aum Shinrikyo in Japan
have infamously released sarin gas into Tokyo subways that ended up killing a
dozen people and injuring thousands in 1995. The recency of all these attacks
demonstrates how the threat of sarin gas and other nerve agents still looms
over the entire globe, with militaries and terrorist organizations showing high
levels of interest in them. Although more and more prohibitions against the use
of chemical weapons have been signed, such as the 1997 Convention on the
Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical
Weapons and on their Destruction which has 165 signatories, the examples from
the 2013 attacks in the Syrian civil war demonstrate how the demands of war
often nullify adherence to these treaties. 

conclusion, chemicals not only hold the potential to benefit people’s daily
lives in the form of food, cures for diseases, and building materials, but they
can also result in tragedy for people caught in the midst of war. The fact that
sarin merely originated as a proposal to increase crop yields demonstrates how
technological innovation is inseparable from the perpetual advancement of
modern warfare. Additionally, although many people downplay the importance of
interactions at the molecular level, sarin demonstrates how an interaction
between two types of molecules can bring an end to a human life extremely
quickly. Hearing long, esoteric-sounding words such as “acetylcholine,”
“acetylcholinesterase,” and “organophosphate” may appear boring at first, but
understanding the role that these substances play in sustaining (or
endangering) the human body is truly a matter of life and death for many
people. From the battlefields of southwest Asia to the subway stations of
Japan, sarin has made history by distinguishing itself as one of the most
destructive and deadly chemicals the world has ever known.

Works Cited

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Blakemore, Erin. “The History of
Chemical Weapons Use Goes Back to the Ancient World.” History, 1
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"Faith, Fanaticism, and Fear: Aum
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie. "How
Sarin Gas Works." ThoughtCo, 8 September 2013, www.thoughtco.com/how-sarin-gas-works-609278. Accessed 2 May 2023.

Pruitt, Sarah. “The Nazis Developed
Sarin Gas During WWII, But Hitler Was Afraid to Use It.” History, 1
April 2019, https://www.history.com/news/the-nazis-developed-sarin-gas-but-hitler-was-afraid-to-use-it. Accessed 2 May 2023. 

Manaster, Joanne. "The Chemistry
of Sarin Poison Gas on the Periodic Table of Videos." Scientific
American Blog Network
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Accessed 2 May 2023.

Sawwan, Ameenah. "I Survived the
2013 Chemical Attack on Ghouta." Al Jazeera, 22 August 2019, www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2019/8/22/i-survived-the-2013-chemical-attack-on-ghouta. Accessed 2 May 2023.

Ken. "sarin". Encyclopedia Britannica, 16 Feb. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/technology/sarin.
Accessed 2 May 2023