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US News What is a nerve agent and how does it work?

02:50  08 march  2018
02:50  08 march  2018 Source:   news.sky.com

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The substance that could be responsible for the death Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was the VX nerve agent , according to preliminary reports from Malaysian police.

But low doses of nerve agent have been linked with long-term effects in people who did not exhibit clinical symptoms at the time of exposure. All nerve agents can affect the body either through inhalation or skin contact.

Nerve agents work by interrupting messages from the brain © Getty Nerve agents work by interrupting messages from the brain

The suspected poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury is now being treated by police as attempted murder by nerve agent.

Here is a closer look at the lethal toxins:

A nerve agent works by interrupting the messaging from the brain down into the muscles.

Sky News Science and Medical Correspondent Thomas Moore says: "In essence the nerves fire too much too quickly, they become tired and the muscles stop working."

What are the symptoms?

Emergency crews outside Zizzi's restaurant in Salisbury © PA Emergency crews outside Zizzi's restaurant in Salisbury

The victims of this suspected poisoning had difficulty breathing, and were described by witnesses as "wheezing".

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But low doses of nerve agent have been linked with long-term effects in people who did not exhibit clinical symptoms at the time of exposure. All nerve agents can affect the body either through inhalation or skin contact.

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They were discovered unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury Maltings shopping centre vomiting, twitching and "slumped" together.

The victims remain in a critical condition in quarantine in hospital.

There are a number of options as to how the poison could have been administered. Thomas Moore says "generally speaking it is a liquid hazard, to turn it into a gas you need heat. That doesn't seem likely in this instance".

Putting the liquid into a spray so it enters the body through the eyes or skin can be a very speedy way to administer the poison, and can lead to instant death.

Secreting the liquid into a drink or into food are also possibilities, but would tend to have a slower effect than direct skin contact.

What was the substance used to poison them?

Russian spy caught on CCTV in Salisbury © N/A Russian spy caught on CCTV in Salisbury

There are many different types of nerve agent. Here are some of the most well-known:

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But low doses of nerve agent have been linked with long-term effects in people who did not exhibit clinical symptoms at the time of exposure. All nerve agents can affect the body either through inhalation or skin contact.

VX is an extremely toxic chemical compound that was originally developed for military use.

Just 10 milligrams of VX, when absorbed through the skin, is enough to cause "fatal disruption of the nervous system" within 15 minutes.

It is a clear, colourless liquid which is hard to detect.

VX penetrates the skin and disrupts the transmission of nerve impulses. Those exposed to the agent experience convulsions, loss of consciousness, paralysis and fatal respiratory failure.

It is believed to have been the substance used to assassinate Kim Jong Un's half-brother Kim Jong Nam at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 13 February last year.

Sarin can turn your own body against you - and exposure has the potential to kill you within minutes.

Sergei Skripal, a former spy was found unconscious in Salisbury centre after being exposed to a mysterious substance. © Sky News Screen Grab Sergei Skripal, a former spy was found unconscious in Salisbury centre after being exposed to a mysterious substance.

The brain uses neurotransmitters which tell your body what to do. Once they have done their job, they are usually destroyed by enzymes.

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Image: Nerve agents work by interrupting messages from the brain.

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Sarin gas stops the enzymes from doing this, which means the neurotransmitters keep delivering these messages. In effect, it means you lose control of your body - sending it into overdrive.

Symptoms include convulsions, dilated pupils, vomiting, tightening of the chest and an uncontrollable bladder.

This chemical weapon, like many others, was made illegal by the United Nations in 1997.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Julia are in a critical condition © Other Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Julia are in a critical condition

Soman is an extremely toxic chemical liquid that is clear and colourless - although it goes yellow to brown as it ages - and gives off a vapour.

Its smell has been described as similar to camphor or rotting fruit. It can be spread like an aerosol spray, or used to contaminate food or water.

Soman prevents the nervous system functioning properly. It causes pain in the eyes, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, muscle twitching and loss of consciousness.

It can kill quickly. If they do survive, research has shown a victim of Soman is likely to experience long-term psychological effects.

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The victim of such a nerve agent usually dies from asphyxiation due to not being able to breathe out. Other symptoms. Martin Boland does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant

Like other nerve agents such as sarin, VX’s lethal effects take place at the level of the cell by acting on a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. What VX does is prevent acetylcholine from breaking down, resulting in an overabundance of communication: Before long, the muscles get overstimulated and the

The three locations at the centre of the 'poisoning' investigation © N/A The three locations at the centre of the 'poisoning' investigation

The UN has classified Soman as a weapon of mass destruction.

This heavy metal poison is colourless, odourless and tateless.

It is used commercially as a metal element in electronics, the pharmaceutical industry and in glass manufacturing. It is also used in infrared detectors.

Known as the "poisoner's poison", it can be used in liquid form or in a powder to poison the victim.

Historically used as a rat poison, its non-selective toxicity led to bans of the compound in the majority of countries.

It is slow acting and painful, with an additional side-effect of hair loss.

British Police Community Support Officers stand on duty outside a residential property in Salisbury © Getty British Police Community Support Officers stand on duty outside a residential property in Salisbury

It is notoriously hard to trace.

Organophosphate pesticides can cause similar symptoms and work in a similar way to nerve agents.

These chemical compounds of phosphoric acid make up about 50% of the killing agents in chemical pesticides.

After World War II large quantities were made and marketed as insecticides.

Investigators inside the Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury near to where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was found critically ill by exposure to an unknown substance. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday March 6, 2018. See PA story POLICE Substance. Photo credit should read: Steve Parsons/PA Wire © PA Investigators inside the Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury near to where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was found critically ill by exposure to an unknown substance. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday March 6, 2018. See PA story POLICE Substance. Photo credit should read: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Like nerve agents, they affect the brain's neurotransmitters and can cause disorientation, headaches and influenza-like symptoms.

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The victim of such a nerve agent usually dies from asphyxiation due to not being able to breathe out. Other symptoms. But low doses of nerve agent have been linked with long-term effects in people who did not exhibit clinical symptoms at the time of exposure.

Like all nerve agents , VX stops a vital enzyme from working -- which eventually leads to the body tiring, and no longer being able to breathe. MUST WATCH. Nerve gas: How does it harm people? 01:00. What are the symptoms?

An antidote would need to be given to victims as soon as possible, in order to minimise any further damage to the muscles.

Thomas Moore says: "It may now be matter of supporting the patients and helping them breathe, hoping that their bodies can recover themselves."

What is the risk to the public?

Police outside the Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury near to where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was found critically ill by exposure to an unknown substance © PA Police outside the Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury near to where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was found critically ill by exposure to an unknown substance

Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies says there is a "low risk to the public", and that "all the sites which the patients were known to have visited have been secured".

A business park in Amesbury, the bench where the victims were found in Salisbury, a Zizzi restaurant and a nearby pub called The Bishop's Mill have now all been cordoned off by police.

Evidence is now being gathered, with hundreds of detectives, forensic officers and analysts are working on the case to establish the specific substance used.

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New Zealand had come under increasing pressure from allies to denounce Russia following the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter.New Zealand had come under increasing pressure from allies to denounce Russia following the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

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