On a quiet Sunday afternoon, a man and a woman slumped on a bench in a crowded shopping center in southern England. In the ensuing days it would become clear they were the intended victims of a vicious chemical attack.
The man is former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. The woman, his daughter Yulia. The weapon, a military-grade nerve agent named Novichok.
An Old Cold War Foe
Part of a class of nerve agents developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Novichoks are made up of two components that are less hazardous prior to mixing. This binary property makes Novichok agents (unlike other nerve agents) easier to handle and transport — and circumvents international chemical weapons treaties.
Novichok agents can exist in a solid, liquid and gaseous forms. They may be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. Some variants take effect in as little as 30 seconds while others have the potential for a slower release.
Regardless of the method of exposure, the symptoms are horrifying:
Flashback to One Year Ago…
On Feb. 13, 2017, Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was attacked at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
Two women approached Jong Nam and sprayed liquid VX — another extremely toxic nerve agent — on his face and then covered it with a handkerchief. He suffered a painful death within half an hour.
It takes as little as 10 milligrams of VX — which stands for “venomous agent X” — simply making contact with your skin to cause death. It’s so lethal that 75% of those it touches will die within eight hours. (Compare that with certain Novichok variants that are five–eight times more deadly.)
KLIA is one of the biggest airports in Southeast Asia and the 23rd-busiest airport in the world. It’s extremely fortunate that no other passengers at the airport that day were exposed to the deadly chemical.
(In England, traces of Novichok were found at a restaurant and pub the Skripals had visited. But so far no other victims have been reported.)
Act Fast to Stay Alive
Chemical weapons can be fatal in incredibly small doses, which is one of the reasons they are so hazardous. The effects of nerve agents are long-lasting and increase with continued exposure.
If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of a chemical attack, it is critical that you take the following steps to minimize the risks:
- Remain calm — I realize this is easier said than done, but it’s vital that you keep a level head. When you panic, you inhale air faster, which is dangerous if the air around you is contaminated with poisonous chemicals. Do your best to stay calm and act quickly.
- Get out and go high — Obviously, the first thing you should do if you observe a chemical weapon attack is get as far away as possible. If you are indoors, exit the building as quickly as possible and head for higher ground. Nerve agents in gaseous form are denser than air, meaning the vapors will sink.
- Remove your clothes — Once you escape the exposed area, immediately remove your clothes. However, do not remove any item of clothing over your head. If your clothes are indeed contaminated, doing so will spread the chemical to other parts of your body. Instead, cut off your clothes and place them inside a plastic bag.
- Wash with soap and warm water — The women who perpetrated the attack on Kim Jong Nam immediately washed their hands afterward. If your skin makes contact with a chemical agent, immediately wash the affected area with soap and warm water. It is imperative that you act quickly so the chemical doesn’t absorb into your skin.
- Be prepared with the right gear — Even if you have a gas mask as part of your survival gear, it won’t keep you safe from nerve agents like VX if they get on your skin. If a chemical attack is something you are concerned about, I recommend purchasing a hazmat suit. DuPont makes several types of protective suits you can buy online. That being said, Novichok agents were designed to defeat chemical protective gear, which ultimately means avoidance is key.
- Seek professional care — There are select antidotes that can counteract the effects of nerve agent poisoning — although many of these drugs are also toxic on their own. And while they may save your life, you will likely still be incapacitated briefly — or for an extended period — depending on the extent of exposure.
I hope we never have to deal with the reality of chemical warfare in the United States. But the truth is it’s a terrifying possibility that we may one day have to face.
Clearly, there are countries out there that are still developing and testing these types of weapons, so it’s important that you know what to do in the event of a chemical attack.