Mystery gas may have been nerve agent that leads to death of brain
By The Guardian – Monday October 28, 2002
Copyright: The Guardian
Western chemical warfare experts said yesterday that the gas pumped into the theatre, which may have killed many of the hostages, was most likely a rare form of nerve agent developed by US military in the 1970s.
QND, or quinuclinodylbenzoate, developed by the Department of Defence, is a relative of a nerve agent and considered to be non-lethal when used properly. Russian officials refuse to name the gas.
“All nerve agents, like Sarin gas and those that the Iraqis use, block the transmissions between nerve and muscle”, said Professor Peter Rose of the Open University. “These would produce the memory deficits that hostages have talked about.”
The symptoms usually caused by QND match those of hostages carried out of the building. It causes skin to be drained of colour, sweating, victims to appear concussed, and possibly have respiratory problems. Victims can also experience hallucinations and anxiety attacks.
“QND is a muscarnic cholinergic blocker,” said Prof Rose. “It effects a special type of nerve, known as a muscarnic receptor, in the brain. When it is released into the atmosphere, it gets into the lungs. It then passes through the bloodstream and through the entire brain.”
Prof Rose said the agent affected the chemical acetylcholine, which carries messages from one nerve cell to another. “QND interacts with this and stops the message getting across,” he added. “It’s like turning the volume up on a radio and stopping any changes in the signal, so the message loses all its meaning. It would be like getting a constant ‘long’ signal in Morse code.”
The agent works on the brain and paralyses its ability to interpret what is going on. “It turns off the lights, and destroys the body’s headquarters.”
Prof Rose added that the people least likely to be affected by the gas were the terrorists themselves as they are the healthiest and the most prepared for such a situation. “It will affect the young and the old more than the fit”, he said. There were many young women among those carried from the theatre.
The gas has never been used before, Prof Rose said, except perhaps in secret, or in a US propaganda film in the 1970s, by the US Department of Defence. “It was stockpiled and never used in the west.” Prof Rose said he had experimented with the gas – which originally comes as a white powder mixed with a propellant – in a laboratory, but never on humans.
“It is bound to be lethal in high concentrations,” said Prof Rose. “It would shut down the brain and if this happens for long enough the body stops getting oxygen and the brain itself dies.”
The Russian military have considered using such “non-lethal incapacitants” before, said Lev Feodorov, the President of the Union of Chemical Security, to stop the coup attempt of 1993. Yet they decided against it. He added that the gas could have been made in Russia, but using an American formula that is commercially available.
Other analysts suggested the gas could be based on a substance called BZ, or another valium-based substance. Both could result in similar symptoms. Russian doctors complained on Saturday morning that they were not immediately told what the gas was, and could not properly treat inhalation victims. Relatives feared doctors still did not know the name of the gas yesterday, as the Russian authorities feared releasing the information to the public.