07/13/2018

The Chemistry Behind Nerve Agents

12:06 minutes

Four months ago, an ex-Russian spy and his daughter were hospitalized in the U.K. They came into contact with a substance known as Novichok—a nerve agent developed by Soviet scientists during the 1970’s and 80’s. And recently, two more people, this time U.K. citizens, were hospitalized. One died after apparent exposure to Novichok. Russia has so far denied any involvement in the attacks.

The nuclear arms race wasn’t the only focus for the U.S. and Soviets during the Cold War. The proliferation of chemical weapons—nerve and blister agents like mustard gas—was also high on their priorities. The first nerve agent was the result of 1930’s German chemists’ experiments to develop new insecticides. The substance was toxic to insects but also, at certain doses, to animals and humans as well. Once inhaled or absorbed, the compound prevents the reuptake of acetylcholine by the nervous system causing the collapse of many bodily functions.

[Twinkle, twinkle little glow worm.]

Luckily, a brush with a nerve agent isn’t always fatal. Dr. Rick Sachleben joins Ira to discuss how nerve agents interact with our body chemistry and what can make a difference between life and death for someone who’s come into contact with the deadly substance.

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Segment Guests

Rick Sachleben

Rick Sachleben is a member of the American Chemical Society based in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Katie Hiler is an assistant producer for Science Friday and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

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