Chemical Weapons, or Nervous Cats

The story begins in Iran, in December of 2022.  A number of students across several higher-level education facilities (Arak, Kharazmi, Al-Zahra, and Isfahan) came down with suspected food poisoning. They were suffering from symptoms including nausea, diarrhea, and body aches.

On social media, momentum for this story underwent a sinister growth; the chrysallis split, and something larger, armed with purpose, emerged. Students were a key player in ongoing anti-government protests; perhaps the canteen food could could have been poisoned by the government?

Sure enough, as 2023 rolled around, the story had become larger, tumorous and warped; now it wasn't just university students, but schoolgirls. It wasn't just canteen food; now, we were getting reports of bags that released strange-smelling gas being lobbed into schoolrooms. Social media picked all this up, and dutifully, journalists reported on it. They managed to get an expert up on the news and force him to suggest it was soman (a nerve agent that to my knowledge nobody has actually managed to produce in bulk cost-effectively; all the soman this world has ever seen has been in pilot plants, not large scale industrial facilities)! There were subreddits dedicated to it. To say this was NOT the work of the Iranian government became heresy.

Apparently, the Iranian government was using chemical weapons on kids!

Except it wasn't. All of this breathless reporting was basically building a feedback loop, where the media was stressing out kids and making them ill. Weird smells, someone already anxious, all of that became triggers for people to get so worried they effectively made themselves sick. There were no chemical weapons, which would have been obvious to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of them.

But Mr. Mistoffelees, you cry, how can you be so sure? Well, friends, let's talk about nerve agents.

The first thing that drew my attention to this story was that a whole lot of people were displaying a lot of generic symptoms, but nobody was dying. The point of nerve agents is to kill people; they belong to a broad class of substances known as neurotoxins. To understand how neurotoxins work, we have to go all the way back to 1921, to a man called Otto Loewi. Otto, via a very famous and extremely gruesome experiment involving depriving frogs of their beating hearts, with some nerves attached, determined that the brain is not purely electric. By making one heart beat slower with electrical impulses to something called the vagus nerve, and then putting the second heart in the liquid used to bathe the first, he observed that it, too, would beat slower. The experiment showed that there must be some kind of soluble chemical involved in the brain; something that was more than just neurons firing. And so our man discovered neurotransmitters, compounds that the nervous system uses to communicate with cells. Specifically, he found something called acetylcholine, which is going to be enormously important momentarily. But back to neurotoxins; as a class, they are chemicals that interfere with the way those neurotransmitters work. They, effectively, hijack the connection between the nervous system and the body. As you can imagine, that's not a good thing, and basically makes your body shut off without rebooting. Some of them do permanent damage to the way the neurotransmitters get sent or received, and some of them are merely temporary, but effectively, they all interfere with the most fundamental way the brain actually functions.

So, how does this lead to nerve agents? Well, we need to skip a few years forward, and over some very interesting chemists who are sadly not relevant to the deliberate production of horrifying weapons. We come to a German man called Paul Gerhard Schrader. Dr Schrader, it must be said, was a man of singular brilliance, and razor focus. He wanted to stop pests interfering with crops, and so he set about the task of investigating pesticides, primarily using compounds with sulfur or flourine involved.

He was very much a man on a mission. He wanted something that could be used to kill beetles and fungus and all the other things that made agriculture difficult, but was relatively safe to handle for people. He made, quite literally, thousands of synthetic substances in the pursuit of this endeavour.  Perhaps the biggest takeaway from his research (beyond what it's about to result in), was that generally, nothing complex containing sulfur or flourine is particularly amicable towards continued human existence.

Arguably, the first casualty of nerve agents was Schrader himself, who managed to invent a lot of things that killed people, regularly expose himself to horrifying substances to the point of hospitalization, but never created anything that came close to solving the pest problem in a safe way.

Unfortunately, while he never managed to end the threat of granary weevils (which, if you google, you'll realise and empathise with why he was busy inventing some of the most lethal compounds ever), he did accidentally invent something that later became known as Tabun, which put him in hospital for a period, and which he later dutifully reported to the government, once he worked out roughly what he'd created. Tabun is an acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor, (which is the enzyme that breaks down that frog heart neurotransmitter acetylcholine; I said it would be important), and it was so effective at this job that all the chemical weapons of the first World War looked like children's toys compared to a lightsaber. During the tests to gauge its lethality, it was unrivalled. A drop of Tabun would kill an ape. And so, the Nazi war machine moved into action. A process for mass-production beyond Schrader's small-scale lab synthesis was developed, and facilities built.

Schrader, however, was still trying to tackle the pest problem. Tabun had been a failure, but he wasn't going to let that stop him. He kept testing and testing for a chemical that wouldn't hurt farmers, but would keep their crops safe. His next big invention was something called Sarin, which was even worse than Tabun.

Sarin, like Tabun, is a potent acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. It's actually likely that Scrader developed lethal compounds that interfered with other neurotransmitters, but ones that weren't as well understood; back then, Otto's work on AChE was The Book on what chemistry the brain uses. Sarin, too, got reported to headquarters, and it too got co-opted into a weapon, and started mass production.

At this point, the cat was well and truly out of the bag, leading to the development of soman, which was done without Schrader. Soman was the first AChE inhibitor that was intended to be used militarily. More lethal than tabun or sarin, which were already monstrous in their ability to cause harm, soman is a compound that I would argue is inherently evil; faster at causing problems with AChE, and intended for that purpose. However, Soman production was expensive, and never went beyond lab-based batch processes.

But Soman does lead us into a new era of chemical weapons; an era defined by a quest towards greater lethality, towards chemical weapons that persisted in the environment, towards the creation of a chemical weapons doctrine. After the war ended, many wanted a piece of the horrifying pie Schrader and the rest of the regime had created, but it's my favourite corporation that wrote the next step.

Imperial Chemical Industries was a titan of British industry; the Microsoft of chemistry, if Microsoft was superlative. They, too, were working on the pest problem, and Ranajit Ghosh and J. F. Newman, two chemists with attitude, created something not quite new, but certainly more effective. This compound shared similarities with Schrader's work; it was an organophosphate, and it killed pests, but mostly, it was a potent AChE inhibitor.

This became the background for the V-series of nerve agents, which defined everything afterwards. The novichok series of weapons, which drew much attention, are still just AChE inhibtors. And nerve agents are just a narrow class of neurotoxins that happen to be in viable form for the military; they're actually not gasses, as such. In fact, militarily, they need to have specific qualities, like being clear liquids, persisting for a period, etc. And importantly, in effectively any concentration, most exposure will be fatal unless you get immediate medical treatment. Yes, people survive nerve gas exposure. But those cases should be considered extreme outliers. I cannot stress that these are chemicals that are made to be lethal. Films show people drinking vials of poison. I want you to imagine a paperclip. Hold it in your mind; imagine the size of it. A paperclip weighs (roughly) 1 gram. Now, divide that paperclip into ten parts in your head. Encountering a volume of nerve agent equivalent to one of those ten parts will kill you within minutes. No questions. A raindrop's worth of VX will unmake a person.

So, in light of the schoolgirl attacks, I want to explain what happens when you get exposed to a non-lethal dose of these chemicals. I believe we should start that by talking about Gulf War syndrome. Hopefully, you'll be familiar with it, but in short, many soldiers serving in the Gulf War, in particular, reported long-term symptoms of a mysterious, and life-affecting nature. It was a mystery for many years, but was recently confirmed to be what many suspected; the consequences of long-term exposure to organophospates. This, really, shouldn't have come as a surprise to anybody. El Al Flight 1862 crashed into an apartment block in Amsterdam in 1992; it was carrying a cargo of something called dimethyl methylphosphonate, which has many uses and is not a nerve agent (albeit is a scheduled chemical). For years after the crash, the residents of the apartment block complained of discomfort, insomnia, cognitive issues and generally a multitude of unpleasant symptoms; exactly the same as the soldiers in the Gulf War who were exposed. This is typical of exposure to this class of chemicals; shortly, we'll be discussing Aum Shinrikyo, whose victims will also suffer symptoms forever. But the thing to understand here is that even exposure to non-weaponised organophosphates will have life-changing consequences that I would not wish on anybody.

Aum Shinrikyo is an excellent example of the damages that these substances can do. If you're not familiar with them, that's unsurprising. They are (they went under a rebrand; now they call themselves Aleph) a sort of weird, pseudo-Buddhist cult ran by a deranged man named Shoko Ashahara (originally Chizuo Matsumoto). Like all weird cults, they dabbled in eschatology. But unlike the other weird cults of the world, Aum had an unusual amount of resources. The travel writer Bill Bryson describes, in his 2000 book Down Under, how Aum managed to pick up a tremendous amount of land in Australia and the rumours of nuclear weapons testing they were performing there. It's highly unlikely they were able to even come close to building the foundations of a nuclear weapon, but they DID hire several Soviet nuclear scientists temporarily. For reasons I don't think anybody has been able to explain, Aum was able to treat the fall of the Soviet Union like a sort of marketplace for Bond villains. We don't know what the full extent of their basket for ending the world was, but one thing we do know it contained was a set of schematics for a faulty Sarin production plant.

The story of Aum could, and has, filled several books and documentaries. I don't want to tell the story, because other, smarter, more eloqent people have. In particular, in the context of their chemical weapons, Dan Kaszeta, who much of this is cribbed from or inspired by, spends a full chapter explaining their misadventures in his book Toxic; skip to the end of the article if you'd just like to buy it and read something by somebody who is an actual expert.

The short version, however, is this: Aum never got their plant functional. While they did manage to produce chemical weapons, these were mostly made in labs, not plants. Their production process wasn't professional. The weapons they made were impure; backyard experiments. They didn't really understand how to even use what they were making. Calling Aum amateurs is mildly insulting to hobbyists around the world.

And yet, they killed 14 people in the Tokyo subway attacks. They injured thousands more; many who got enough exposure to have to deal with the aforementioned organophosphate complications for the rest of their lives. Over at, you can read a study about the long-term effects on these people. It is not easy reading.

Ultimately, what I want to stress here is that there are no real safe levels of organophosphate exposure, and the situation with even the earliest, least dangerous weapons like sarin, is lethal enough that you could be an actual moron, make the stuff mostly wrong, use it wrong, and still end lives.

Which is why the Iranian schoolgirl story rubs me the wrong way. All those narratives about everyone getting a funny smell (most of these gases are odorless, although production impurities can impart some distinct smells to them), stories about visible gas. Everyone is scared, everyone gets out, people complain about being sick for a few days, no fatalities.

That is not what happens. If I threw a flask of highly impure, Aum-quality sarin into a schoolroom, everyone present would be pining for the fjords. Quite possibly most of the people sent in to investigate would also be shuffled off this mortal coil.

The problem is, this story makes the news regularly. It "happened" to Afghan schoolgirls in the late 00s. It "happened" to pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran. Every time, the media regurgitates it wholesale, and it causes panic and fear. People constantly claim that riot gas is a chemical weapon, and this causes accidents in protests. I have written this specifically to help people digest how dangerous these sustances are, and how they came to be, in shorter-than-book form, so that maybe we can fact check these stories.

A note: I haven't really discussed the war gasses in this, and they might be worth a blog later, becase they're fascinating in their own right, but, while less lethal, they're still unpleasant substances indeed. You would, again, have deaths, and serious physical symptoms; there are pictures of mustard-induced blisters in the literature, and on Google. It's not a "feel a bit sick, can't come in today" kind of thing.

If you liked this blog, please consider purchasing a copy of It's a great book, and again, the source of much of the stuff in this article.

There's also Dr Mirzayanov's book, State Secrets, which is a fascinating read from the perspective of the other side of the Cold War, which can be found here:

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