By: Myles Power Edited by: Peter
On 21st August 2013, the nerve agent Sarin was used during the Syrian civil war. Hundreds were killed in the attacks - all of which took place over a short span of time in the disputed areas of the Ghouta suburbs of the Markaz Rif Dimashq district. This was the first time that chemical weapons had been used in the twenty first century and goaded attention from the worldwide community. The United Nations investigated the attacks over three weeks and confirmed that Sarin had been used. Since the attack, the media coverage here in the UK went into overdrive with every reporter looking for the next big scoop. On September 7th, the Mail Online published an article called 'Britain sent poison gas chemicals to Assad: Proof that the UK delivered Sarin agent to Syrian regime for SIX years'. The article claimed that British companies have sold chemicals to Syria, and one of them could have been used to produce the deadly nerve agent. The chemical in question is sodium fluoride, which has many uses, including the synthesis of Sarin. I feel that before I go into detail about this article and talk about the chemistry, it's important to talk about Sarin gas.
Sarin is a colourless and odourless compound and a potent nerve agent. It works by preventing your muscles from switching off usually causing death from asphyxia due to the inability to control the muscles required for breathing. It does this by inhibiting an enzyme called Acetylcholinesterase from hydrolysing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine in humans is used at the neuromuscular junction where signals are transmitted via synapses between neurones from the central nervous systems to muscle fibres. When acetylicholine is relesed into the synapse to signal muscle movement it binds to a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor which depolarises the muscle fibre, causing a cascade that eventual results in muscle contraction. Acetylcoline is then degraded by acetylcholinesterase, allowing the muscle to relax. With acetylcholinesterase being inhibited by Sarin, acetylcholine is allowed to build up and continues to act on the muscle fibre - preventing control and causing them to be continually contracted. Sarin can be synthesised using dimethyl methylphosphonate, phosphorus trichloride, iso propanol and sodium fluoride. This however is not the only way to synthesise the nerve agent, as one of its precursors (methylphosphonyl difluoride) can be synthesised using hydrogen fluoride. This is where the Mail Online article falls at the first hurdle. We don't know if the Sarin used in the August attacks was synthesised using sodium fluoride or hydrogen fluoride or by any other chemicals.
As the Mail Online article correctly says that sodium fluoride has a “multitude of benign uses, such as toothpaste” – which begs the question if it does have a multitude of benign uses, why are they specifically going after this chemical? Why did the author (Mark Nicol) not ask where the iso-propanol came from? Because it too is used in the synthesis of Sarin and it also has a multitude of benign uses.
Sodium Fluoride has a large array of uses and there are reasons for why a company or country would want to import large quantities. The most common example of its use is in water fluorination. Sodium fluoride is added to the water source to enhance the strength of the teeth of the people drinking it by the formation of fluorapatite. If, however, Mark uncovered that a UK company was sending large quantities of dimethyl methylphosphonate (a schedule 2 chemical with very few applications other than the synthesis of chemical weapons), he would have a point and concerns raised in the ‘comments’ section of the article would be justified. But he hasn’t, he instead has twisted a story about the sale of a widely used chemical into one about the UK government helping the Syrian government synthesise a nerve agent to use on its own citizens.
To get an idea of Marks (lack of) scientific understanding, we simply have to look at the picture he published in his article with the caption ‘How the British chemicals aid Assad’. The first part wrong with it is where it says sodium fluoride has the chemical symbol NaF. This might sound like nitpicking, but thats not a symbol – it’s sodium fluoride’s formula. The second part which is hilariously incorrect is where Mark tries to talk about the synthesis of Sarin. He says that fluoride (I think he means sodium fluoride) is added to other chemicals and combined with dimethyl methylphosphonate. He then goes on to say that it is also combined with “phosphorus, alcohol, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to make sarin”. Such an over simplified and incorrect explanation of the synthesis of Sarin can only come from someone with no understanding of organic synthesis or chemistry in any way. It can only come from someone who should not be writing a sensitive piece about the precursors to a deadly nerve agent used the month before. Mark also included a picture of an oil drum with the old radioactive and toxic warning symbols on the side. These symbols mean something Mark!!! Sarin is not radioactive and you should not be implying that it is. You are either intentionally lying to your audience, or you do not know the meanings of these symbols, and therefore should not be using them.
In conclusion the Mail Online has once again shown how intellectually bankrupt they are and how they are willing to spin a story to ludicrous extremes. Did the British government sell chemical weapons to Syria? No, we sold a chemical that can be used in its synthesis but has a wide range of other legitimate uses. If we are going to accuse the British government of selling chemicals that can be used to produce potentially dangerous compounds, why stop there? Why not attack manufacturers of ammonium chloride because it is used in the synthesis of heroin? Or the producers of toluene because its the pre-cursor of trinitrotoluene (TNT).
The one thing this article has brought to my attention is why we need scientifically literate people to report on scientific issues and not people like Mark Nicol who don’t have a clue what they are talking about.