Two U.S. government sources have said the chemical agent used in Tuesday’s chemical attack in Syria was the deadly nerve agent sarin.
Warplanes dropped the chemical weapon on the Khan Sheikhoun neighbourhood in Idlib around 6:30 a.m. local time.
The head of the health authority in rebel-held Idlib has said more than 50 people were killed in the gas attack and 300 injured. At least 25 of the victims were children, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) stated, and three of the aid organization’s medical staff were affected by the attack.
CNN reports that the officials believe it’s sarin gas because of the high casualty count and the severity of the injuries.
The UOSSM said victims experienced:
- Redness of the eyes
- Foaming from the mouth
- Myosis (constriction of the pupil — the opposite of dilation)
- Face cyanosis (bluish discoloration of the skin)
- Severe difficulty breathing
The symptoms of sarin gas, which is a man-made nerve gas, include respiratory failure, paralysis and convulsions — which could lead to death. Symptoms of a smaller exposure include myosis, blurred vision, drooling and coughing or chest tightness, according to the CDC.
The attacks have overwhelmed local medical facilities which are “unequipped to handle chemical attacks of this magnitude,” the UOSSM stated.
But one expert says it’s too early to tell what gas was used.
“There are many, many substances that can be used in chemical warfare which could have quite different effects,” Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, told Global News.
Initial reports say the victims suffering from asphyxiation lends some clues, but Schwarcz cautions against guessing what exactly was used. Among the dozens of chemical agents it could have been: nerve gasses (such as sarin gas), asphyxiants, blistering agents, and choking agents.
“Each of these would give rise to totally different symptoms and effects,” Schwarcz said. “Once you’ve been exposed to these things it’s very very difficult to do anything about it.”
Symptoms would have appeared immediately on inhalation.
“There is very little treatment for any of these, and certainly would not have been available in a remote setting,” Schwarcz said. “I don’t think that anything could have been done.”
The only way to prevent exposure would be with gas masks.
“It doesn’t sound like they stood a chance.”
There have been more than 200 chemical weapon attacks in Syria during the six years of civil war in the country. The bulk of those have been since a UN resolution passed in 2013 that banned chemical weapons in Syria.
The worst attack was an Aug. 2013 incident in which ground missiles loaded with sarin were fired on civilian areas while residents slept. Hundreds of people suffocated to death in the rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital.
The U.S. and others blamed the Syrian government, the only party to the conflict known to have sarin gas.
“If the Assad regime was indeed responsible for perpetrating [Tuesday’s] attack, the reported casualty figures would make it the biggest incident like this since the Syrian regime’s Aug. 2013 sarin attack against the Damascus suburbs,” a U.S. official told Reuters, noting “it has the fingerprints of a regime attack.”
For its part, the Syrian army denied any involvement with the attacks.
*with a file from Reuters and The Associated Press
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