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Cholinesterase Inhibitors

Biochemical Warfare: Nerve Gas Weapons

By modifying the molecules of cholinesterase inhibitor compounds, scientists have discovered ways to make them more potent. That is, a small amount of chemical has the same effect as a much larger amount. Scientists did this work in an effort to make insecticides more economical; so that farmers would not have to use so much.

Unfortunately, evil people realized that such potent chemicals could be used for terrorist attacks. On March 20, 1995, twelve people were killed and over 5,000 were injured when a nerve gas called "sarin" was released in the Tokyo subway system. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein used nerve gas on his enemies in the Northern part of Iraq. People may have also been exposed to nerve agents during the conflict ("Gulf War") in the Middle East. Many countries either have access to these dangerous weapons or have the technical knowledge to make them. 

Some kinds of nerve gas are so toxic that a single drop on the skin can kill you in a few minutes.


The same principles are used to treat any case of  cholinesterase inhibitor poisoning, whether from pesticides, drug overdose, or nerve gas attack. Specifically, you want to use a drug that either destroys cholinesterase inhibitors or that blocks the action of acetylcholine. There are no good drugs that destroy cholinesterase inhibitors, but acetylcholine blockers have been used medically for many decades. One drug that you may have heard about is atropine.  Atropine and related compounds work rather well for mild poisoning, but they are often inadequate for treating nerve gas attack.

More information on cholinesterase inhibitors can be found in Unit 2 of the Properties of Hazards module.


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