What is VX Gas? The Deadliest Chemical Weapon Ever Known
It’s 1952, and two scientists working for the British company ICI have just made an astounding discovery.
The men, Ranajit Ghosh and JF Newman, are heavily involved in insecticide research and have just created and patented their findings. It’s a phenomenal new bug killer called Teteram.
There’s only one problem.
Teteram doesn’t just kill bugs. It’s also one of the most potent human killers ever known. They’ve just created VX gas.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Chemical Arms Race Begins
Why is VX Gas So Lethal?
The New Kid on the Block
What Does VX Do to You?
The First Wartime Use
Is VX Still Around?
What Can I Do to Protect Myself Against VX?
A Sticky Problem
The Chemical Arms Race Begins
During World War One, the chemical weapons (CW) race began. It began when Germans released chlorine at Ypres. The world’s biggest powers started spending millions on chemical weapons research.
While terrifying on the field of battle, poison gas accounted for just 91,000 of the 1.3 million deaths during World War One.
Yet even after two world wars, in the 1950s, this global arms race was still well underway.
Once governments realized just how lethal VX gas was, all insecticide production was pulled as military scientists across the globe flocked to study just what it was that had been created.
Was espionage involved in the world powers figuring out just what made VX tick? Or was it something else?
Let’s not forget that VX gas had a patent attached to it.
Anybody who pulled the patent could see precisely how to make it.
Figuring out how to create this new “super” weapon took just a quick trip to the local patent office to peruse the latest advancements in the field of pesticides.
A few simple pictures of publicly available documents would have given a foreign spy everything they needed to know about Teteram.
All the major global powers of the time then soon began to heavily research and develop their own versions of further weaponized VX gas. They rapidly developed new means of deploying the deadliest nerve agent ever known across the battlefield.
The world of chemical weaponry had just entered a new and far deadlier phase.
Why is VX Gas So Lethal?
Some chemicals are more persistent in the environment than others.
Where other chemical weapons may degrade after only a few hours of exposure to the world, VX doesn’t seem to have this problem. It can persist in the environment for up to three weeks.
So even if you were nowhere in the area during an attack, you could still be killed by VX simply by grabbing a doorknob in the sprayed area two weeks later. Needlessly to say, VX gas effects can be immediately fatal.
VX is entirely odorless and typically clear.
So refugees attempting to flee a war-torn region where chemical weaponry has been used could still be killed despite having no clue that they are in danger and not being near the fighting.
VX clings to what it is sprayed onto, can penetrate clothing, almost mysteriously find its way into buildings, and a single drop can kill a man in as little as 15 minutes. Theoretically, a single liter of VX can kill over a million people.
Militaries across the globe soon came to terms with this awesome killing power. And they began to mass produce not only VX but also the bombs and missiles that could place this lethal mist in the enemy’s midst.
A barrel of VX.
A Deadly New Standard for Chemical Weapons
Prior to its development, it was widely known that sarin was the most lethal chemical weapons agent. But VX gas blew sarin out of the water. VX is 3x as toxic when inhaled compared to sarin and 1000x as toxic when absorbed through the skin. Sarin can’t compare to the lethality that VX possesses.
A soldier training to don his gas mask and hazmat suit as quickly as possible
Further compounding the issue, there’s little to no chance of effective treatment should one be exposed to VX.
With early-generation nerve agents, victims could typically be given a drug called atropine to halt the cascade of lethal events within the body if given within minutes of exposure. But with VX, atropine really isn’t effective.
In the mid-50s, scientists realized that atropine had to be combined with a drug called PAM (pyridine aldoxime methiodide) to help protect a victim against VX.
The problem then lay in figuring out a field-expedient means of getting these drugs into a soldier’s system as rapidly as possible. Militaries then turned to auto syringes filled with the medications for grunts to jab into their thighs, but this was by no means a simple process while wearing a thick hazmat suit and rubber gloves.
What Does VX Do to Your Body?
All nerve agents essentially do the same thing—causing your body’s central nervous system to “short circuit.”
The time until death is the primary differentiator.
But perhaps we can learn a bit about how VX works by studying the “cure.”
Atropine works by kicking nerve agents off the active site of cholinesterase within the body. Cholinesterase helps the body to relax muscle fibers.
VX causes uncontrollable muscle contractions. Because of this, the victim will convulse violently on the ground within a few minutes after exposure.
Most people think of muscle as the biceps they see in the mirror. That’s “skeletal muscle,” just one type of muscle fiber. The human body also contains what is called “smooth” muscle. This type of muscle lines the airway, blood vessels, and other parts of the body.
And this is part of the problem with VX exposure. If it only caused the skeletal muscle to contract, it would likely be survivable. But even smooth muscle contracts violently when exposed to VX. As a result, airways will constrict, making it impossible to breathe.
Due to this smooth muscle contraction, the pupils of the eye will constrict to a telltale pinpoint.
This was one of the first symptoms that early researchers of VX noticed. When they spent time around it in the laboratory, they soon developed difficulty seeing, and their pupils would constrict. If the exposure is significant enough, the victim will then begin sweating profusely, producing copious amounts of snot, and the victim will urinate and defecate all over themselves.
Then, the victim will die.
It’s an excruciating and frightening means of death that strikes terror in all those who are watching.
But that’s all if the dosage is high enough.
As discussed above, it doesn’t take much VX to kill somebody, but it is possible to be chronically exposed to low amounts of VX in the atmosphere. Researchers involved in the development of VX helped to demonstrate this, as have US soldiers diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome (albeit this is likely caused by long-term exposure to low levels of aerosolized sarin gas, sarin is a nerve agent as well).
(Image source: The Gulf War. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
The First Wartime Use
While the world's superpowers rapidly produced as much VX as they could, it wouldn’t be until the 1980s that VX would be used on the battlefield.
But you have to go back even further—to 1975—to understand how it all started …
(Image source: The Iran-Iraq War. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
From 1975-1976, Iraq began preliminary research on the use of VX as a battlefield weapon. They’d long tinkered with other chemical agents, but it wasn’t until 1985, when Dr. Emad Husayn Abdullah Ani arrived on the scene, that things took on a much more profound perspective.
Schooled in Moscow, Dr. Emad returned to Iraq to help his country to reach a level of armament comparable with the most technologically capable nations on the planet. And he was going to use chemical weaponry to do that.
By April 1988, Iraq seemed to have somewhat accomplished its goal, creating a new form of VX that was easier to store. But a weapon made is a weapon used, and VX was about to be put to the ultimate test: it was about to be used on the battlefield.
(Image source: The attack on the Tehran Airport and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
As the Iran-Iraq war raged, Saddam Hussein relied on chemical weaponry extensively. Nothing was off limits to this man. To Saddam, the ends justified the means.
In March 1988, Saddam attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq. Over 3000 men, women, and children were massacred in the gas attack, with some estimates placing the death toll at 5000). At least 10,000 were injured. Mustard and sarin were both used at the time, but it’s also thought that VX was used too.
(Image source: The Halabja Monument Museum Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
(Image source: Graves from the Halabja Massacre. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
As with just about anything related to chemical weaponry and the Middle East, there’s a lot of debate here.
But I strongly believe Saddam did use VX. Here is why …
We know that Saddam used tabun, sarin, mustard, and several other chemical weapons that his men produced. There’s no reason to believe that he would have had hesitations about using VX, another CW we know for a fact that Saddam had made.
(Image source: The Halabja Monument. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Is VX Still Around?
Only the naïve believe it is not.
In 1956, Britain publicly renounced the use of all of the biochemical weapons that they had been producing, researching, and stockpiling. This was one of the first moves in the global CW disarmament utopian pipe dream.
This movement continued to gain steam throughout the West.
In contrast, the rest of the world continued the development of chemical weapons, albeit in an even more confidential manner. By 1988, French President Francois Mitterand claimed that his nation no longer had any chemical weaponry whatsoever, marking yet another development in the disarmament of the West concerning CW.
(Image source: image courtesy of Francois Mitterand. )
Posturing and escalation continued until 1993 when the Chemical Weapons Convention was signed by a large number of nations across the globe. This document bans virtually anything related to chemical weapons. Countries that have signed the international agreement state that they won’t develop, acquire, transfer, or produce any form of chemical weapons whatsoever.
Because of the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention, many believe that chemical weapons are a relic of the past. Of course, words often have little value.
(Image source: A VX landmine. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
A High-Value Assassination
VX is considered a third-generation nerve agent. In March 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was living in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in the United Kingdom.
Skripa had spent some time as a double agent for the United Kingdom, and perhaps he thought he had left his old life behind. Unfortunately, it was about to go back to haunt him.
The former house of Sergei Skripal. (Image source: image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. )
He and his daughter Yulia were assassinated with what was initially an unidentified nerve agent. That unknown agent was later discovered to be the Russian nerve agent Novichok – a fourth-generation nerve agent that’s essentially a more stable, two-component variant of VX made explicitly in Russia. Not only did the CWC not do anything, but it also allowed other nations to continue developing even more deadly chemical weapons.
But let’s not forget that other nations out there never bothered to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention in the first place. And perhaps the prime case study here would be North Korea.
It’s a Family Thing
Kim Jong Nam was the oldest son of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. It long appeared as if he was going to be the next successor to the head of the country before Nam gradually began to fall out of the spotlight. Nam was also a spy, giving valuable information on the inner workings of his half-brother Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship.
(Image source: Image courtesy of Kim Jong Un)
In 2017, as Nam was walking through the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia, two women, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, snuck up behind him and threw a liquid into his face as a towel was rubbed over his face from behind.
Nam quickly found airport security officers, detailing what had just happened to him. Within twenty minutes of the attack, Nam would be dead. He had been assassinated with VX. The two women were quickly caught, but both alleged they had thought they were on a reality TV show. They stated they had no clue that they were each carrying components that would create VX when placed on somebody’s face. They said they thought they were carrying baby oil.
While Malaysian authorities claimed that North Korean agents had trained both women, North Korea denied all involvement in the assassination. Siti would later be released, and all charges against her dropped.
What was it that killed Nam? VX.
But aside from nations that signed the CWC and countries that did not, other actors still have found the means to come across VX.
Enter the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan.
Notorious for their sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, this extremist cult also attempted several assassinations with VX.
Aum Shinrikyo was (and is) a doomsday cult that originated in Japan. Masami Tsuchiya was one of the foremost chemists for the cult throughout the early 90s and used his home laboratory to produce 340 grams of VX.
(Image source: Officials raid an Aum Shinrikyo facility. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. )
Cult members then used this weapon for targeted assassinations …
A local lawyer defending Aum's assassination victims had proven to be a thorn in the cult’s side. In addition, the head of the Aum Shinrikyo Victims’ Association was giving the cult a lot of bad press they didn’t want to get out of hand.
But it wasn’t just the legal system that Aum wanted to target.
The cult even targeted some of its own members former. Dissidents would not be tolerated. And for this reason, a homeowner hiding a former Aum member was also chosen as a target.
Finally, the leader of a rival cult was also chosen to be a victim.
But despite all the plans, the only successful Aum VX assassination took place on December 12, 1994. As Takahito Hamaguchi was going on a jog in Osaka, two cult members posed as joggers ran up behind him and sprayed the back of his neck with VX. Takahito probably knew just what had happened. He attempted to chase down the assassins for roughly a hundred yards.
(Image source: An anti-Aum flag waves in Japan. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. )
But for Takahito, it was already too late.
He collapsed to the ground in convulsions, dying several days later. He’d just been murdered with a chemical weapon that only the world’s biggest superpowers supposedly had.
So if superpowers that signed the CWC have VX, if nations that didn’t sign the CWC have VX, and if cult members can produce it at home, it’s safe to say that there’s still plenty of VX out there.
What Can I Do to Protect Myself Against VX?
As we’ve discussed before, it’s possible to survive a nerve agent attack. But it’s very difficult.
If you find yourself anywhere near ground zero without proper protection, your chances aren’t good. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s absolutely nothing that you can do.
One of the most important things you can do is have ready access to a quality hazmat suit and gas mask with an appropriate filter. We at MIRA Safety can help you with that.
Our MOPP-1 Protective Suit is easily one of the most durable and long-lasting CBRN suits on the market. It’s comprised of puncture-resistant, semi-permeable combination of ripstop nylon and polyamide with a carbon filter lining.
Unlike traditional hazmat suits, the unique construction of a MOPP suit affords the user with breathability throughout the entire body. That means longer hours of use without experiencing pure exhaustion from physical exertion. Additionally, the integrated carbon spheres in the lining of the suit provides a human sized active filter that adsorbs toxic chemical warfare agents such as VX gas.
The MOPP-1 Suit can be stored in your home or car in a wide variety of climates, so you could easily have it on hand in case of emergency.
For gas masks, we recommend our CM-7M.
If there’s a VX release, you’re likely maneuvering through a war zone, and the tapered design of this mask makes it much easier to get a good sight picture with your rifle while still staying protected against chemical agents.
What’s more, the CM-7M comes in 3 different sizes. That allows you to find a perfect fitting mask for every member of your family.
This mask was designed in cooperation with the Czech Army, and the bromobutyl rubber of the face piece provides superior CW protection. When combined with a suitable filter such as the NBC-77, you’ll have a gas mask that can protect you against VX and a wide array of other CW agents.
WA Serious Threat
A VX landmine.
While getting gassed by a VX spray is not the most likely threat out there, the fact remains that VX is still a valid threat that deserves to be respected and understood.
Especially if you live in a country that’s at odds with Russia, the Middle East, or North Korea. Because each of these states almost certainly possesses nerve agents like VX gas. Will they use these weapons?
Only time can tell. But it’s worth noting that nuclear weapons aren’t the only weapons of mass destruction that enemy nations to America possess.
Regardless of whether these weapons are used anytime in the meantime or not, given advance warning of a release, quickly donning your hazmat gear and gas mask can help you stay alive.
The catch here is that you must ensure that you have the appropriate equipment beforehand.
And hopefully, we’ve helped to demonstrate here just one of the many reasons why you may want to do that.