If reports that a combination of sarin and chlorine gas killed more than 40 people in Douma, Syria is true, many of the survivors should expect to recover physically. The chemical weapons themselves will not stay in the city, but for some people, the fear and anxiety left by a chemical attack will do so.
There are still many things that we do not know with certainty about the alleged chemical weapons attack that is said to have hit the city of Douma this weekend. Photos of lame children breathing through masks or covered in tubes have been leaving the city, the victims of what could have been a combination of chlorine and sarin gases, reports Reuters based on photos, videos and witness statements from the scene. The Syrian government has been accused of using both in the past, according to the Associated Press.
Syrian and Russian officials have denied that a chemical attack has taken place, but government forces are preventing journalists and investigators from entering Douma and reviewing themselves, reports The New York Times. As a result, we do not know precisely how many people have died, although reports tend to range between 40 and 80. And at least 500 people who survived the attack have sought medical attention, says The New York Times.
"The long-term psychological effects of being bombed and poisoned are things we can not rule out."
We have seen that chemists leave toxic legacies before, like a compound in Agent Orange that has been delayed in Vietnam for decades, harming the health of the exposed and their children. But unlike Agent Orange, neither chlorine nor sarin pollute the region for long. The chlorine gas evaporates in a few minutes, says Cheryl Rofer, a former chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who has retired. Sarin stays a little longer than chlorine, because it's not really a gas, says Rofer. It is a liquid that is released in a jet of drops, so it evaporates or decomposes in a matter of days, for longer.
Both chlorine and sarin act quickly on the body; Chlorine can burn eyes, nose and throat, and cause fluid to build up in the lungs, which can make people feel they are drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people who die from exposure to chlorine gas die from suffocation within a day, according to the CDC. People who were healthy before inhaling chlorine gas and surviving usually recover within two weeks, but sometimes they may have persistent breathing problems. That's relatively rare: less than 5 percent of 700 British soldiers who were exposed to chlorine during World War I, for example, still had ongoing lung problems like bronchitis four years later.
"The feeling of suffocation is incredibly powerful."
Sarin, too, "presents an immediate but short-term threat," says the CDC. "Slightly exposed people usually recover completely, and severely exposed people are less likely to survive." Much of what we know about exposure to sarin comes from a long-term study of sarin attack victims in Japan. The cult of the end of the world Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in Matsumoto, Japan in 1994, and in the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 21 people and exposing more than 6,000 to the nerve agent. About 10 percent of survivors experienced nerve damage and problems walking, but those symptoms disappeared about three months after exposure, according to the study published in the Journal of Neurological Sciences in 2006. More than a third continued to report problems Of vision. and pain in the eyes for several years after the attack on the subway.
But it's not just physical symptoms that last. After all, chemical weapons are designed to inspire terror, and do not forget the moments when you can not breathe. "The feeling of suffocation is incredibly powerful," says Cindy Vestergaard, director of the nuclear safeguards program at the Stimson Center. "The long-term psychological effects of being bombed and poisoned are things we can not rule out," says medical toxicologist Peter Chai, professor of Emergency Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
About eight percent of victims of sarin attacks in the 1990s were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the study. The trauma prevented people from returning to life as usual: three years after the attack in Tokyo, almost 14 percent of the victims surveyed told investigators that they still could not travel on the subway. That is the point of chemical weapons: to inspire the kind of terror that prevents even survivors from living their lives. In that way, chemical weapons have a much longer reach than the chemicals themselves.