Sarin: Exposure, Decontamination, Treatment

What Sarin Is

  • Sarin is a human-made chemical warfare nerve agent and is one of the most toxic and rapidly acting of known nerve agents.
  • Sarin is also known by the military designation GB.
  • Sarin, like all nerve agents, interferes with the operation of an enzyme that stops muscles from contracting. When this enzyme does not work correctly muscles are constantly being stimulated. With continuous contraction of muscles, exposed people may become tired and no longer be able to keep breathing.
  • Sarin is a clear, colorless, tasteless liquid with no perceivable odor.
  • Sarin can readily evaporate into a vapor (gas) and spread into the environment.

How People Can Be Exposed to Sarin

  • After a release of sarin into the air, people can be exposed through skin contact, eye contact, or inhaling (breathing in) the sarin vapor.
  • Following a release of sarin into water people can be exposed by touching or drinking the water. Sarin mixes readily with water, helping to spread the contamination.
  • People can also be exposed to liquid sarin by swallowing it, getting it on their skin, or in their eyes.
  • Eating, drinking, or touching food or drink contaminated with sarin can expose people to sarin.
  • Touching or inhaling sarin vapor from contaminated clothing can expose anyone who touches the clothes or inhales sarin vapors from the clothes.
  • Because sarin vapor is heavier than air, it will sink to low-lying areas and increase the risk of exposure there.

Food Contaminated with Sarin

  • Food not contained in glass or metal (such as plastic, paper, or cloth containers) that may have come into contact with vapor or liquid sarin should be avoided.
  • If the food is in an undamaged sealed glass or metal container, it should not be affected by a sarin release. Wash the outside of the container before using.
  • If the food smells, tastes, or looks unusual, avoid using the food.
  • Follow any directions by local authorities.

Signs and Symptoms of Sarin Exposure

Signs and symptoms vary depending on how the person was exposed, the amount of sarin (mass), and the length of time they were exposed. Sarin has no perceivable odor, so until signs and symptoms develop, people may not know they were exposed.

People exposed to a low or moderate dose of sarin may experience some or all of the following signs and symptoms within seconds to hours after exposure:

  • Abnormally low or high blood pressure
  • Chest tightness
  • Confusion
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Drooling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drowsiness
  • Eye pain
  • Eye tearing
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headache
  • Heart rate, slow or fast
  • Increased urination
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or abdominal pain
  • Rapid breathing
  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Small, pinpoint pupils
  • Tremors
  • Vision, blurred
  • Weakness
  • Wheezing

Even a small drop of sarin on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching where it touched the skin.

Exposure to large doses of sarin by any route would likely result in the following harmful health effects:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Cardiac arrest possibly leading to death
  • Coma
  • Convulsions
  • Paralysis
  • Respiratory failure possibly leading to death
  • Seizures
  • Twitching

What to Do If Exposed to Sarin

  1. Get away from the area where the sarin was released and breathe fresh air. Make sure you understand your local emergency notification system if you have one. Refer to emergency broadcasts and local authorities for instructions.
  • If the sarin release was outdoors, go indoors and shelter in place. Make sure windows are closed and ventilation systems are turned off to make sure the contamination does not come inside. If you cannot go indoors, leave the area where the sarin was released.
  • If you cannot get away from the area where sarin was released, go to the highest ground possible because sarin is heavier than air and will sink to low-lying areas.
  • If sarin was released indoors, get out of the building, and seek higher ground.
  1. Get it off your body right away!

Taking off all layers of clothing (including jewelry and accessories), blotting any liquid, and showering is the best method for removing sarin from your body. Ideally, undress, blot, and shower immediately or as soon as you can, as described below. If you cannot take off all layers, take off as many clothes as you can.

  • Avoid pulling clothing over your head. If you must pull clothing over your head, close your eyes and mouth, and hold your breath so you don’t get sarin in your eyes, nose, or mouth. Place items in a designated area, preferably in a plastic bag.
  • If you wear contact lenses, take them out and place them with your clothing. Do not put contact lenses back in.
  • Use separate, dry, clean cloths or paper towels to blot each part of your body where you feel liquid, beginning with your head and hair, and then your face, hands, body, arms, legs, and feet. Blot your skin for 10 seconds, then rub for 10 seconds any places on your skin or in your hair where you can see or feel liquid.
  • Continue blotting and rubbing, with clean, dry cloths or paper towels, dropping used things to the floor. Repeat the process several times if you continue to feel liquid on you. Use a separate clean cloth or paper towels for each part of your body, and for each time you repeat the process.
  • First wash your hair, face, and hands, and then wash the rest of your body. Wash from your head to your feet, including armpits and groin, with lukewarm water and mild soap (if available) for about 90 seconds. Use soapy water for a minute, followed by a 30 second plain water rinse. Try not to let the water run into your eyes, nose, or mouth. Do not scrub!
  • If your eyes are burning or you can’t see normally, flush your eyes for 10–15 minutes with lukewarm water. Do not use eye drops.
  • Dry your face, then tilt your head back and dry your hair, and then dry down your body. Use anything that will soak up water. Drop used things to the floor. Dress in any available clean clothes to prevent hypothermia. This is especially important if temperatures are cool.
  • If emergency response services are available, leave used items on the floor and report their location to emergency personnel. Move as far from the used items as possible. Otherwise, put on waterproof or heavy gloves that won’t let liquid seep through. Gather all used things from the floor, including your clothes, and put them in a plastic bag. Remove gloves and put them in a plastic bag. Close the plastic bag and place it in a second plastic bag. Close up the second bag also.
  • Do not put the bags in the regular trash! Place the bags in an area where other people are unlikely to disturb them and come in contact with sarin. Inform local authorities of the location of the bags for pick up.
  1. Get help. Call 911. Go to a hospital if local officials say it is safe to leave your home. If you need more information, call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Treatment for Sarin Exposure

Treatment consists of removing sarin from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital setting or by trained emergency personnel. Antidotes for sarin are available in a healthcare setting. They are most useful if given as soon as possible after exposure.

If someone has ingested sarin, do NOT induce vomiting.

Long-term Health Effects

Because sarin breaks down slowly in the body, repeated exposures to sarin or other nerve agents can build up in the body (have a cumulative effect).

People who received low doses usually recover. People who received higher doses of sarin may experience chronic or long-lasting symptoms, such as muscle weakness, paralysis, pain, and pins and needles sensations. People who received very high doses are less likely to survive.

For a comprehensive list of chemical agent information, see Chemicals A-Z.