This week, the world is learning that on August 21, Syria's Assad regime attacked civilians living on the outskirts of Damascus, killing at least 355 of them, including many small children. According to Vice President Joe Biden, there is "no doubt" that chemical weapons were used by the regime -- and not, as the Assad government has claimed, by rebel forces.
The victims suffered terrible and painful deaths. Many experts are concluding that most likely a nerve agent such as sarin was deployed. Sarin is a type of organophosphate (OP), a class of chemicals used for making herbicides, insecticides and nerve gases.
The effects of sarin and other OPs on the human body are profound, shocking and can be long lasting. Some exposures have left the surviving victims paralyzed for weeks, with perhaps permanent liver malfunctions and lingering neurological dysfunctions.
OPs disintegrate in a matter of hours. But during their comparatively brief period of volatile danger, the deadly molecules can pass through human skin, nostrils, lungs and eyes to enter the bloodstream and then the brain. If enough of it gets inside the brain to saturate the nervous system, an agonizing death follows.
I first learned about sarin gas in 1978 when I was hired by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to assess the human health impacts of 33,000 pesticide formulations used by farmers and pest eradication companies. Obviously the state wasn't serious about this. Who hires a 26-year-old graduate student immunologist to, by herself, evaluate so many chemicals?