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Major Chemical Agents Facts
 

expand        Arsenic
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What happens to arsenic when it enters the environment?
change its form. Arsenic in air will settle to the ground or is washed out of the air by rain. Many arsenic compounds can dissolve in water. Fish and shellfish can accumulate arsenic, but the arsenic in fish is mostly in a form that is not harmful.

 
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How can arsenic affect my health?
Breathing high levels of inorganic arsenic can give you a sore throat or irritated lungs. Ingesting high levels of inorganic arsenic can result in death. Lower levels of arsenic can cause nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of "pins and needles" in hands and feet. Ingesting or breathing low levels of inorganic arsenic for a long time can cause a darkening of the skin and the appearance of small "corns" or "warts" on the palms, soles, and torso. Skin contact with inorganic arsenic may cause redness and swelling. Organic arsenic compounds are less toxic than inorganic arsenic compounds. Exposure to high levels of some organic arsenic compounds may cause similar effects as inorganic arsenic.

 
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How does arsenic affect children?
We do not know if exposure to arsenic will result in birth defects or other developmental effects in people. Birth defects have been observed in animals exposed to inorganic arsenic. It is likely that health effects seen in children exposed to high amounts of arsenic will be similar to the effects seen in adults.

 
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Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to arsenic?
There are tests to measure the level of arsenic in blood, urine, hair, or fingernails. The urine test is the most reliable test for arsenic exposure within the last few days. Tests on hair and fingernails can measure exposure to high levels or arsenic over the past 6-12 months. These tests can determine if you have been exposed to above-average levels of arsenic. They cannot predict how the arsenic levels in your body will affect your health.

 
expand        Chlorine
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Where chlorine is found and how it is used
Chlorine was used during World War I as a choking (pulmonary) agent. Chlorine is one of the most commonly manufactured chemicals in the United States. Its most important use is as a bleach in the manufacture of paper and cloth, but it is also used to make pesticides (insect killers), rubber, and solvents. Chlorine is used in drinking water and swimming pool water to kill harmful bacteria. It is also as used as part of the sanitation process for industrial waste and sewage. Household chlorine bleach can release chlorine gas if it is mixed with other cleaning agents.

 
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How chlorine works
The extent of poisoning caused by chlorine depends on the amount of chlorine a person is exposed to, how the person was exposed, and the length of time of the exposure. When chlorine gas comes into contact with moist tissues such as the eyes, throat, and lungs, an acid is produced that can damage these tissues.

 
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What the long-term health effects are
Long-term complications from chlorine exposure are not found in people who survive a sudden exposure unless they suffer complications such as pneumonia during therapy. Chronic bronchitis may develop in people who develop pneumonia during therapy.

 
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How chlorine exposure is treated
No antidote exists for chlorine exposure. Treatment consists of removing the chlorine from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital setting.

 
expand        Cyanide
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Where cyanide is found and how it is used
Hydrogen cyanide, under the name Zyklon B, was used as a genocidal agent by the Germans in World War II. Reports have indicated that during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, hydrogen cyanide gas may have been used along with other chemical agents against the inhabitants of the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq.
 
Cyanide is naturally present in some foods and in certain plants such as cassava. Cyanide is contained in cigarette smoke and the combustion products of synthetic materials such as plastics. Combustion products are substances given off when things burn. In manufacturing, cyanide is used to make paper, textiles, and plastics. It is present in the chemicals used to develop photographs. Cyanide salts are used in metallurgy for electroplating, metal cleaning, and removing gold from its ore. Cyanide gas is used to exterminate pests and vermin in ships and buildings. If accidentally ingested (swallowed), chemicals found in acetonitrile-based products that are used to remove artificial nails can produce cyanide.

 
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How cyanide works
Poisoning caused by cyanide depends on the amount of cyanide a person is exposed to, the route of exposure, and the length of time that a person is exposed. Breathing cyanide gas causes the most harm, but ingesting cyanide can be toxic as well. Cyanide gas is most dangerous in enclosed places where the gas will be trapped. Cyanide gas evaporates and disperses quickly in open spaces, making it less harmful outdoors. Cyanide gas is less dense than air, so it will rise. Cyanide prevents the cells of the body from getting oxygen. When this happens, the cells die. Cyanide is more harmful to the heart and brain than to other organs because the heart and brain use a lot of oxygen.

 
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What the long-term health effects may be
Survivors of serious cyanide poisoning may develop heart and brain damage.

 
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How cyanide poisoning is treated
Cyanide poisoning is treated with specific antidotes and supportive medical care in a hospital setting. The most important thing is for victims to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.

 
expand        Lewisite
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Where lewisite is found and how it is used
Lewisite was produced in 1918 to be used in World War I, but its production was too late for it to be used in the war. Lewisite has been used only as a chemical warfare agent. It has no medical or other practical use. Lewisite is not found naturally in the environment.

 
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How lewisite works
Adverse health effects caused by lewisite depend on the amount people are exposed to, the route of exposure, and the length of time that people are exposed. Lewisite is a powerful irritant and blistering agent that immediately damages the skin, eyes, and respiratory (breathing) tract. Because it contains arsenic, lewisite has some effects that are similar to arsenic poisoning, including stomach ailments and low blood pressure.

 
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What the long-term health effects may be
Extensive skin burning, as seen with sulfur mustard, is less likely. Extensive breathing in of the vapors may cause chronic respiratory disease. Extensive eye exposure may cause permanent blindness. Unlike sulfur mustard, lewisite is not known to suppress the immune system.

 
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How lewisite exposure is treated
Treatment consists of removing lewisite from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital setting. An antidote for lewisite is available and is most useful if given as soon as possible after exposure.

 
expand        Mustard Gas
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Where sulfur mustard is found and how it is used
Sulfur mustard is not found naturally in the environment. Sulfur mustard was introduced in World War I as a chemical warfare agent. Until recently, it was available for use in the treatment of a skin condition called psoriasis. Currently, it has no medical use.

 
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How sulfur mustard works
dverse health effects caused by sulfur mustard depend on the amount people are exposed to, the route of exposure, and the length of time that people are exposed. Sulfur mustard is a powerful irritant and blistering agent that damages the skin, eyes, and respiratory (breathing) tract. It damages DNA, a vital component of cells in the body. Sulfur mustard vapor is heavier than air, so it will settle in low-lying areas.

 
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What the long-term health effects may be
Exposure to sulfur mustard liquid is more likely to produce second- and third- degree burns and later scarring than is exposure to sulfur mustard vapor. Extensive skin burning can be fatal. Extensive breathing in of the vapors can cause chronic respiratory disease, repeated respiratory infections, or death. Extensive eye exposure can cause permanent blindness. Exposure to sulfur mustard may increase a person’s risk for lung and respiratory cancer.

 
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How sulfur mustard exposure is treated
The most important factor is removing sulfur mustard from the body. Exposure to sulfur mustard is treated by giving the victim supportive medical care to minimize the effects of the exposure. Though no antidote exists for sulfur mustard, exposure is usually not fatal.

 
expand        Phosgene
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Where phosgene is found and how it is used
Phosgene was used extensively during World War I as a choking (pulmonary) agent. Among the chemicals used in the war, phosgene was responsible for the large majority of deaths. Phosgene is not found naturally in the environment. Phosgene is used in industry to produce many other chemicals such as pesticides. Phosgene can be formed when certain compounds are exposed to heat, such as some types of plastics. Phosgene gas is heavier than air, so it would be more likely found in low-lying areas.

 
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How phosgene works
Poisoning caused by phosgene depends on the amount of phosgene to which a person is exposed, the route of exposure, and the length of time that a person is exposed. Phosgene gas and liquid are irritants that can damage the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.

 
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What the long-term health effects are
Most people who recover after an exposure to phosgene make a complete recovery. However, chronic bronchitis and emphysema have been reported as a result of phosgene exposure.

 
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How phosgene exposure is treated
Treatment for phosgene exposure consists of removing phosgene from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital setting. No antidote exists for phosgene. Exposed people should be observed for up to 48 hours, because it may take that long for symptoms to develop or reoccur.

 
expand        Sarin
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Where sarin is found and how it is used
Sarin and other nerve agents may have been used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Sarin was used in two terrorist attacks in Japan in 1994 and 1995. Sarin is not found naturally in the environment.

 
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How sarin works
The extent of poisoning caused by sarin depends on the amount of sarin to which a person was exposed, how the person was exposed, and the length of time of the exposure. Symptoms will appear within a few seconds after exposure to the vapor form of sarin and within a few minutes up to 18 hours after exposure to the liquid form. All the nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of the chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function. Sarin is the most volatile of the nerve agents, which means that it can easily and quickly evaporate from a liquid into a vapor and spread into the environment. People can be exposed to the vapor even if they do not come in contact with the liquid form of sarin. Because it evaporates so quickly, sarin presents an immediate but short-lived threat.

 
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What the long-term health effects are
Mild or moderately exposed people usually recover completely. Severely exposed people are not likely to survive. Unlike some organophosphate pesticides, nerve agents have not been associated with neurological problems lasting more than 1 to 2 weeks after the exposure.

 
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How sarin exposure is treated
Treatment consists of removing sarin from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital setting. Antidotes are available for sarin. They are most useful if given as soon as possible after exposure.

 
expand        Soman
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Where soman is found and how it is used
It is possible that soman or other nerve agents were used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Soman is not found naturally in the environment.

 
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How soman works
The extent of poisoning caused by soman depends on the amount of soman to which a person was exposed, how the person was exposed, and the length of time of the exposure. Symptoms will appear within a few seconds after exposure to the vapor form of soman, and within a few minutes to up to 18 hours after exposure to the liquid form. All the nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of the chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function. Compared with other nerve agents, soman is more volatile than VX but less volatile than sarin. The higher a chemical’s volatility, the more likely it will evaporate from a liquid into a vapor and disperse into the environment. People can be exposed to the vapor even if they do not come in contact with the liquid form. Because of its high volatility, soman is an immediate but short-lived threat and does not last a long time in the environment. Because soman is more volatile than the nerve agent VX (the most potent nerve agent), it will remain on exposed surfaces for a shorter period of time compared with VX.

 
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What the long-term health effects are
Mild or moderately exposed people usually recover completely. Severely exposed people are not likely to survive. Unlike some organophosphate pesticides, nerve agents have not been associated with neurological problems lasting more than 1 to 2 weeks after the exposure.

 
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How soman exposure is treated
Treatment consists of removing soman from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital setting. Antidotes are available for soman. They are most useful if given as soon as possible after exposure.

 
expand        Stychnine
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Where strychnine is found and how it is used
The primary natural source of strychnine is the plant Strychnos nux vomica. This plant is found in southern Asia (India, Sri Lanka, and East Indies) and Australia. In the past, strychnine was available in a pill form and was used to treat many human ailments. Today, strychnine is used primarily as a pesticide, particularly to kill rats. Uncommonly, strychnine is found mixed with “street” drugs such as LSD, heroin, and cocaine.

 
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How strychnine works
The extent of poisoning caused by strychnine depends on the amount and route of strychnine exposure and the person’s condition of health at the time of the exposure. Strychnine prevents the proper operation of the chemical that controls nerve signals to the muscles. The chemical controlling nerve signals works like the body’s “off switch” for muscles. When this “off switch” does not work correctly, muscles throughout the body have severe, painful spasms. Even though the person’s consciousness or thinking are not affected at first (except that the person is very excitable and in pain), eventually the muscles tire and the person can’t breathe.

 
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What the long-term health effects are
If the person survives the toxic effects of strychnine poisoning, long-term health effects are unlikely. However, long-term effects may result from damage caused by the poisoning (for example, brain damage from low oxygen, kidney failure). People severely affected by strychnine poisoning are not likely to survive.

 
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How strychnine exposure is treated
Treatment consists of removing the drug from the body (decontamination) and getting supportive medical care in a hospital setting. Supportive care includes intravenous fluids (fluids injected directly into a vein), medications for convulsions and spasms, and cooling measures for high temperature.

 
expand        Tabun
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Where tabun is found and how it is used
It is possible that tabun or other nerve agents were used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Tabun is not found naturally in the environment.

 
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How tabun works
The extent of poisoning caused by tabun depends on the amount of tabun to which a person was exposed, how the person was exposed, and the length of time of the exposure. Symptoms will appear within a few seconds after exposure to the vapor form of tabun, and within a few minutes to up to 18 hours after exposure to the liquid form. All the nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of the chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function. Compared with other nerve agents, tabun is more volatile than VX but less volatile than sarin. The higher a chemical’s volatility, the more likely it will evaporate from a liquid into a vapor and disperse into the environment. People can be exposed to the vapor even if they do not come in contact with the liquid form. Because of its high volatility, tabun is an immediate but short-lived threat and does not last a long time in the environment. Because tabun is more volatile than VX, it will remain on exposed surfaces for a shorter period of time compared with VX. Because tabun is less volatile than sarin, it will remain on exposed surfaces for a longer period of time compared with sarin.

 
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What the long-term health effects are

Mild or moderately exposed people usually recover completely. Severely exposed people are not likely to survive. Unlike some organophosphate pesticides, nerve agents have not been associated with neurological problems lasting more than 1 to 2 weeks after the exposure.


 
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How tabun exposure is treated
Treatment consists of removing tabun from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital setting. Antidotes are available for tabun. They are most useful if given as soon as possible after exposure.

 
expand        VX
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Where VX is found and how it is used
It is possible that VX or other nerve agents were used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. VX is not found naturally in the environment.

 
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How VX works
The extent of poisoning caused by VX depends on the amount of VX to which a person was exposed, how the person was exposed, and the length of time of the exposure. Symptoms will appear within a few seconds after exposure to the vapor form of VX, and within a few minutes to up to 18 hours after exposure to the liquid form. VX is the most potent of all nerve agents. Compared with the nerve agent sarin (also known as GB), VX is considered to be much more toxic by entry through the skin and somewhat more toxic by inhalation. It is possible that any visible VX liquid contact on the skin, unless washed off immediately, would be lethal.
All the nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of the chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function. VX is the least volatile of the nerve agents, which means that it is the slowest to evaporate from a liquid into a vapor. Therefore, VX is very persistent in the environment. Under average weather conditions, VX can last for days on objects that it has come in contact with. Under very cold conditions, VX can last for months. Because it evaporates so slowly, VX can be a long-term threat as well as a short-term threat. Surfaces contaminated with VX should therefore be considered a long-term hazard.

 
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What the long-term health effects are
Mild or moderately exposed people usually recover completely. Severely exposed people are not likely to survive. Unlike some organophosphate pesticides, nerve agents have not been associated with neurological problems lasting more than 1 to 2 weeks after the exposure.

 
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How VX exposure is treated
Treatment consists of removing VX from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital setting. Antidotes are available for VX. They are most useful if given as soon as possible after exposure.