Russian spy Sergei Skripal: How nerve agents can destroy the body in minutes

UK police today announced they believe a nerve agent was used to deliberately poison a former Russian double agent and his daughter.

Nerve agents have been used in chemical warfare since WWII and have been linked to a number of high-profile assassinations, including in the case of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un's exiled half brother last year, who died 20 minutes after being given a highly toxic VX nerve agent.

Here's the effect they have on the body and whether it's possible to recover from a nerve agent attack.

What are nerve agents?

Nerve agents are highly poisonous chemicals that work by disrupting and preventing the nervous system from working properly, according to the US Centre for Disease Control.

They do this by inhibiting the enzyme which orders the muscle or organ to relax, meaning the muscle is repeatedly receiving a signal to contract.

While they are commonly referred to as nerve gases, in pure form they are colourless — and mostly odourless — liquids.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says they are easily dispersed, highly toxic and have rapid effects when absorbed through the skin or through the respiratory system.

G series agents are known as non-persistent (degrade easily), while V series agents are persistent, meaning they do not degrade or wash away easily and are considered among the most toxic substances ever synthesised.

There are four main types of nerve agents, including G and V series:

  • Sarin (GB),
  • Soman (GD)
  • Tabun (GA)
  • VX

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