Ask The Pharmacist: Ripped from the headlines; how Sarin works
When the news broke of the chemical attack on Syrian civilians and babies, we were all disturbed and shocked that a weapon of mass destruction was unleashed. Sarin is its name and it’s 26 times more potent than cyanide.
Being a curious sort, I looked it up to see what the mechanism of action was, as well as the antidote to Sarin. With radiation, research supports greens (dulse, chlorella, spirulina, etc.) or perhaps some iodine supplements. None of that works for Sarin though.
I did something I shouldn’t have. People who are empathetic should not be allowed to Google images of such an attack. I can’t unsee the damage done by Sarin and other nerve agents. Ugh. This neurotoxin was outlawed in the 1990s. It’s in the same schedule 1 category like LSD, heroin, marijuana, GHB and ecstacy. It doesn’t work like those, it’s just categorized with them.
Sarin blocks an enzyme in the human body called acetylcholinesterase (ACHE) that normally breaks down your memory neurotransmitter called “acetylcholine.” So some ACHE is good it supports learning and memory. In fact memory supplements always put ingredients in their formula to gently block ACHE, so again, a bit more acetylcholine is fine. Too much will kill you.
Sarin shuts down ACHE completely, so acetylcholine levels skyrocket within minutes. This is the same mechanism of action that bug spray and malathion utilizes. Most insecticides block ACHE, so Sarin is essentially just human insecticide. If you walk by it and inhale it, you wouldn’t even know because you can’t see it or smell it. Death occurs within five or 10 minutes.
But how you wonder? When acetylcholine increases, your muscles cramp. Like most pesticide poisonings, SLUDGE occurs which stands for salivation, lacrimation, urination, defecation, gastrointestinal distress, then emesis (vomiting). Twitching and jerking occurs, then the lungs cramp, paralyzing the airways. It’s death by chemical asphyxiation.
Hosing off the children with water reduces skin exposure slightly. I still see those images from the news of babies being hosed off and thrown into a truck. The watering down of people will certainly dilute the poison and possibly prolong life, but then you have to ask yourself, what kind of life will that person now lead? Neurological consequences cannot be healed.
A total recovery is possible if exposure is low, not a lethal dose. And mainly, if recognition occurs. Remember Sarin (and many nerve gases) are completely colorless and odorless, and you could walk right past someone who had a little on their clothes 30 minutes ago, and it will poison you.
Survival requires the antidote which is usually atropine (but sometimes pralidoxime). These are drugs classified as “anticholinergics.” Atropine is a drug in the U.S., used to treat pesticide poisoning, tachycardia, overactive bladder and pupil dilation (yes, it comes as an eye drop). FYI, many herbs and over-the-counter medications have similar, but weaker anticholinergic properties. So now you’re better informed as you watch the news, and here’s hoping we never face that kind of brutality in our country.
May those who perished rest in peace.
Suzy Cohen is a registered pharmacist. The information presented here is not intended to treat, cure or diagnose any condition. Visit SuzyCohen.com.