Sarin in Fallujah? (and updates)

Several readers have pointed out to us photograph number 2 in the USA today slide show accessible here. The photo depicts 40 vials of suspected sarin gas found by Marines while searching a house in Fallujah. The vials were secreted in a briefcase hidden in a truck in the courtyard of the house. Reader Steve Richardson writes: “Note the German and Russian lettering on the middle pouch.”
UPDATE: Reader Hugh Humphreys writes:

I think this one has been shot down, sort of. NPR ran a story about this here but then retracted it here. The retraction is the link above the photo. What the retraction says is what is interesting: The vials are a sarin ANTIDOTE.
Now knowing that the US would not deploy sarin into a war zone I think that the fact that these yahoos were toting around sarin, wasting precious space that could be occupied by a bomb-laden child, leads me think that the sarin gas is out there somewhere. Somewhere on their side. Or NPR got it wrong.

Reader Mike Martin writes:

With respect to the possible dicsovery of Sarin in Fallujah, I believe those items may be part of a kit to test for the presence of Sarin (or other nerve agents). Labeled “Soman, Sarin, V-gases,” and reference to an instruction leaflet are important clues. Sarin, as well as Soman and VX (as well as Tabun) are all nerve agents, act on the body in a similar fashion, and would be detected using the same type of device/method.
While all are extremely dangerous at low levels, the vials pictured appear to be packaged for ease of transport and limited use, as a testing agent might be. True, a vial of that size, full of nerve agent, could kill a human. Many humans. Dispersal of such a small amount would be the tricky part.
For lack of a better analogy, one could kill a fly with a bazooka. Getting the two together would be near impossible. Successful use of nerve agents on the battlefield require litres upon litres of agent, either dispersed over a wide area, or placed where the enemy will come into contact with it. In a confined space, the amount would be far, far less, something appropriate for a “targeted killing” rather than military use in theater.
Of course, this begs the question what the terrorists are doing with test kits in the first place. I wouldn’t consider myself an “expert” on WMD, however I have had highly advanced training in WMD offered by the military, and have been a civilian paramedic for 10 years.

Reader Robert Sulentic writes:

I showed the picture to a couple of Russian immigrant co-workers (who were also in the Soviet Army), and they said the gist of the Russian text was about where to refer to instructions of use of the vials for chemical testing.
Also, these aren’t to test for just Sarin, but also the other names on the top of the holder–other kinds of chemical agents–I seem to remember that V-Gases is also a Nerve agent, but my experience with chemical testing in the army was in 1987, so I could be mistaken.
Of course, they instantly inferred that if they have testing equipment, there should be chemical weapons around.

Reader Dave Keasey writes:

These are what we would call “Draeger Tubes” (a brand name, though several companies manufacture them… Draeger is possibly the biggest) commonly used in industry and other places (the military, too) for measuring airborne gas concentrations. Quite ingeneous little chemical reactors, which progressively change color along their as the chemical to be measured is drawn through the tube. A specified volume of air is sucked through the tube, and the length of the color change tells you what the concentration of the chemical is. They are actually quite accurate, as long as you don’t have interferences to deal with.
In other words, no story here, other than the bad guys being prepared to measure gasses that might for some reason be present. Who knows… they might have been dumb enough to think that these tubes actually contained Sarin.

Thanks to all who have written trying to help us get this right.
UPDATE 2: Reader Allan Brodsky writes:

Regarding the “Sarin in Fallujah?” post, the Christian Science Monitor published an article on Nov. 12 about the Fallujah operation, with the following paragraphs about midway into the article:

In the course of locating seven weapons caches in a single block around a mosque in northeast Fallujah, an Iraqi platoon Wednesday found a suitcase full of vials labeled “Sarin,” a deadly nerve agent.
While further analysis determined that the find was probably part of a Soviet test kit with samples, its discovery in a room with mortar shells appeared to indicate an intent to weaponize the material.

Even with this interpretation, seems like this story should be getting more coverage.

See also Dan Spencer’s roundup at the California Yankee blog: “More on the Fallujah Sarin vials.”


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