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Major Chemical Agents

Arsenic
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element widely distributed in the earth's crust. In the environment, arsenic is combined with oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur to form inorganic arsenic compounds. Arsenic in animals and plants combines with carbon and hydrogen to form organic arsenic compounds. Inorganic arsenic compounds are mainly used to preserve wood. Organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides, primarily on cotton plants.

Breathing high levels of inorganic arsenic can give you a sore throat or irritated lungs. Ingesting high levels of inorganic arsenic can result in death. Lower levels of arsenic can cause nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of"pins and needles" in hands and feet. Ingesting or breathing low levels of inorganic arsenic for a long time can cause a darkening of the skin and the appearance of small "corns" or "warts" on the palms, soles, and torso. Skin contact with inorganic arsenic may cause redness and swelling.

Organic arsenic compounds are less toxic than inorganic arsenic compounds. Exposure to high levels of some organic arsenic compounds may cause similar effects as inorganic arsenic.

Chlorine
Chlorine was used during World War I as a choking (pulmonary) agent. It is one of the most commonly manufactured chemicals in the United States. Its most important use is as a bleach in the manufacture of paper and cloth, but it is also used to make pesticides (insect killers), rubber, and solvents. Chlorine is used in drinking water and swimming pool water to kill harmful bacteria. It is also as used as part of the sanitation process for industrial waste and sewage. Household chlorine bleach can release chlorine gas if it is mixed with other cleaning agents.

People’s risk for exposure depends on how close they are to the place where the chlorine was released. If chlorine gas is released into the air, people may be exposed through skin contact or eye contact. They may also be exposed by breathing air that contains chlorine. If chlorine liquid is released into water, people may be exposed by touching or drinking water that contains chlorine. If chlorine liquid comes into contact with food, people may be exposed by eating the contaminated food. Chlorine gas is heavier than air, so it would settle in low-lying areas.

Cyanide
Hydrogen cyanide, under the name Zyklon B, was used as a genocidal agent by the Germans in World War II. Reports have indicated that during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, hydrogen cyanide gas may have been used along with other chemical agents against the inhabitants of the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq.

Cyanide is naturally present in some foods and in certain plants such as cassava. Cyanide is contained in cigarette smoke and the combustion products of synthetic materials such as plastics. Combustion products are substances given off when things burn. In manufacturing, cyanide is used to make paper, textiles, and plastics. It is present in the chemicals used to develop photographs.

Cyanide salts are used in metallurgy for electroplating, metal cleaning, and removing gold from its ore. Cyanide gas is used to exterminate pests and vermin in ships and buildings. If accidentally ingested (swallowed), chemicals found in acetonitrile-based products that are used to remove artificial nails can produce cyanide.

Lewisite
Lewisite is a type of chemical warfare agent. This kind of agent is called a vesicant or blistering agent, because it causes blistering of the skin and mucous membranes on contact. It is an oily, colorless liquid in its pure form and can appear amber to black in its impure form and has an odor like geraniums. Lewisite contains arsenic, a poisonous element.

Lewisite was produced in 1918 to be used in World War I, but its production was too late for it to be used in the war. It has been used only as a chemical warfare agent, it has no medical or other practical use. Lewisite is not found naturally in the environment.

Mustard Gas
Sulfur mustard is a type of chemical warfare agent. These kinds of agents are called vesicants or blistering agents, because they cause blistering of the skin and mucous membranes on contact. Sulfur mustard is also known as “mustard gas or mustard agent,” or by the military designations H, HD, and HT. Sulfur mustard sometimes smells like garlic, onions, or mustard and sometimes has no odor. It can be a vapor (the gaseous form of a liquid), an oily-textured liquid, or a solid. It can be clear to yellow or brown when it is in liquid or solid form.

Sulfur mustard is not found naturally in the environment. It was introduced in World War I as a chemical warfare agent. Until recently, it was available for use in the treatment of a skin condition called psoriasis. Currently, it has no medical use.

Phosgene
Phosgene was used extensively during World War I as a choking (pulmonary) agent. Among the chemicals used in the war, phosgene was responsible for the large majority of deaths. It is not found naturally in the environment. Phosgene is used in industry to produce many other chemicals such as pesticides. It can be formed when certain compounds are exposed to heat, such as some types of plastics. Phosgene gas is heavier than air, so it would be more likely found in low-lying areas.

People’s risk for exposure depends on how close they are to the place where the phosgene was released. If phosgene gas is released into the air, people may be exposed through skin contact or eye contact. They may also be exposed by breathing air that contains phosgene. If phosgene liquid is released into water, people may be exposed by touching or drinking water that contains phosgene. If phosgene liquid comes into contact with food, people may be exposed by eating the contaminated food.

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 pesticides (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.

Sarin originally was developed in 1938 in Germany as a pesticide.

Sarin is a clear, colorless, and tasteless liquid that has no odor in its pure form. However, sarin can evaporate into a vapor (gas) and spread into the environment.

Sarin is also known as GB.

Soman
Soman 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 pesticides (insect killers) called organophosphates in terms of how they work and the kinds of harmful effects they cause. However, nerve agents are much more potent than organophosphate pesticides. Soman was originally developed as an insecticide in Germany in 1944. It is also known as "GD." Soman is a clear, colorless, tasteless liquid with a slight camphor odor (for example, Vicks Vapo-Rub®) or rotting fruit odor. It can become a vapor if heated.

It is possible that soman or other nerve agents were used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Soman is not found naturally in the environment.

Strychnine
Strychnine is a white, odorless, bitter crystalline powder that can be taken by mouth, inhaled (breathed in), or mixed in a solution and given intravenously (injected directly into a vein). Strychnine is a strong poison; only a small amount is needed to produce severe effects in people. Strychnine poisoning can cause extremely serious adverse health effects, including death.

The primary natural source of strychnine is the plant Strychnos nux vomica. This plant is found in southern Asia (India, Sri Lanka, and East Indies) and Australia. In the past, strychnine was available in a pill form and was used to treat many human ailments. Today, strychnine is used primarily as a pesticide, particularly to kill rats.

Tabun
Tabun is a man-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 pesticides (insect killers) called organophosphates in terms of how they work and what kinds of harmful effects they cause. However, nerve agents are much more potent than organophosphate pesticides.

Tabun was originally developed as a pesticide in Germany in 1936. It is also known as “GA.” It is a clear, colorless, tasteless liquid with a faint fruity odor. Tabun can become a vapor if heated. It is possible that tabun or other nerve agents were used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Tabun is not found naturally in the environment.

VX
VX 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 pesticides (insect killers) called organophosphates in terms of how they work and what kinds of harmful effects they cause. However, nerve agents are much more potent than organophosphate pesticides.

VX was originally developed in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s. It is odorless and tasteless. VX is an oily liquid that is amber in color and very slow to evaporate. It evaporates about as slowly as motor oil. It is possible that VX or other nerve agents were used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. VX is not found naturally in the environment.