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The Curious Origin of Sarin Nerve Gas


Rabbit used to check for leaks at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Colorado,
manufacturing plant that produces sarin gas. Source: Library of Congress/Wikipedia

As you know, President Obama is urging Congress to approve a strike against Syria for using chemical weapon. Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry asserted forensic evidence pointed out that the Syrian government used the nerve gas sarin to kill more than 1,400 people (including more than 400 children).

But have you ever wondered how sarin came to be? Or even how it got its name?

Birth of a Nerve Gas

Here's the story: In 1936, a German scientist named Gerhard Schrader at Bayer (yes, that Bayer which made aspirin) and later the IG Farben factory (which also produced Zyklon B, the chemical agent used to gas millions of Jews and other "undesirables" to death during the Holocaust), was working on an insecticide designed to disrupt the insect's nervous system.

Schrader experimented with a class of chemical compounds called organophosphates to kill leaf lice or wooly aphids. He and his assistant had synthesized a compound called tabun when, accidentally, they were exposed to a drop of the colorless liquid which fell onto the lab bench. They became very dizzy and had severe difficulty seeing and breathing. It took them three weeks to recover fully.

Schrader has just discovered the first class of nerve agent known to man. Tabun or GA is the first in the G-series of nerve agents discovered by the "father of nerve gas."

Immediately, the Nazi government instructed Schrader to change the focus of his research from killing insects to humans. New factories dedicated to the production of tabun were built, and the Nazi stockpiled over 12,000 tons of tabun. In the following years, Schrader refined two more compounds in the G-series, sarin (or GB), soman (GD) and cyclosarin (GF), but the Germans stuck to tabun as their main chemical weapon.

How Sarin Got Its Name

Sarin, which was 500 times more toxic than cyanide, was named in honors of the people who first discovered it: Schrader, Otto Ambros, Rüdiger and Hermann Van der Linde.

It later became the preferred nerve gas by Western governments because of its greater lethality over tabun, cheap production cost, as well as its ease of turning into gas.

What happened to all that nerve gas that the Nazi made? Fortunately, it was never used against Allied troops (more below). In 1945, at the end of World War II, Soviet forces captured the factory that produced tabun and poured the nerve agent into the Oder River.

Unwanted Chemical Weapons? Throw 'Em in the Ocean!

Wait, what? They just dumped chemical weapons into the water to get rid of them? Actually yes - even the United States government did this until the early 1970s. In fact, that's the preferred method of getting rid of unwanted munitions and chemical weapons

In a series of Operation CHASE, the US Army loaded a dozen or so ships with tens of thousands of tons of unwanted munitions, over 32,000 tons of nerve and mustard gas, sailed the ships some 200 miles off the coast of the US East Coast, and then sank 'em. (CHASE stands for Cut Holes and Sink 'Em - cheeky, eh?).

Thanks to incomplete record keeping, they currently only know the rough whereabouts of half of these ocean dumps.

Soooo ... What happened to the discoverers of Sarin gas?

After the war, the British government tried to recruit Gerhard Schrader, but in 1947 he had gone back to work at Bayer and declined the intelligence officers that approached him:

"I am glad to be fully engaged again in the field of plant protection. My work during the war in the field of toxic substances never complied with my wishes.

"I should like to assist in improving nutrition, but not in inflicting new wounds."

In 1948, Otto Ambros, who was Hitler's chief chemical weapons engineer and one of the main driving forces behind the Nazi chemical weapons program, was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at Nuremburg and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Three years later, after only serving a fraction of his ridiculously light sentence*, Ambros was whisked off to the United States to advice the US Army on its own Sarin chemical weapons program.


"Honest John" warhead containing dozens of M134 bomblets, each containing a pound of Sarin.

*There's a theory that it was actually Otto Ambros himself that convinced Hitler not to use chemical weapons against Allied troops. Some historians suggested that Ambros lied to Hitler that Western forces also had similar chemical agents (they never did) and would use them against the Nazi in retaliation. So, in a sense, he's both a war criminal and a hero who prevented millions of deaths of Allied soldiers at the same time.

Love trivia? Find more neat trivia over at NeatoFacto

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I'll tell you what happened in Syria.
-Turkey (I'm now ashamed of my country) supplied the rebels with sarin.
-Rebels used it.
-US knows it.
-US blames Syrian government.
In fact, Assad said something like "We can move the presidential election's date to a closer date and I won't enter it if nobody attacks my country." He loves his country more than his position. Unlike some other people (ex. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey's dictator. If he was in a situation like Syria, he'd sell our country for money instead of giving up his position)
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Thanks Eddie - I appreciate it.

I couldn't find any reference to the effect of dumping all those nasty chemical weapons in the Oder River at the end of World War II, but it's probably safe to assume that at least for a while, that river was toxic.

The river outlets to the Baltic Sea, which has a volume of 21,700 cubic km - that's a mass of 2.17 x 10^13 metric ton. So 12,000 ton of tabun was a drop in the bucket (0.0000000000055%).
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