Sarin: The Unspoken Threat

Robert J. Milmore and Thomas A. McHale describe how a tragedy in Japan is teaching America's firefighters to prepare for the worst.


The police and firefighters of Tokyo, Japan, could not possibly have imagined the diabolical nature of the emergency they were responding to on the morning of March 20, 1994. The subway system in downtown Tokyo seemed to be in chaos as passengers at five different train stops were collapsing...


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Schrader named the substance Sarin after the four men involved in its development (Schrader, Ambros, Ruedriger and van der Linden). It was this substance the Germans began to stockpile for use in bombs and warheads. It wasn't until after World War II that the Allies discovered Germany's dark secret.

Nerve gas attacks the body by inhibiting the action of a chemical called cholinesterase. This chemical controls muscles by breaking down acetylcholine, a chemical that causes muscular contraction. If this is not done, the level of acetylcholine in the body builds up to a disastrous level, sending all muscles of the body into contractions. The body thus poisons itself, as it loses control of all its functions. The muscles of the arms and legs, along with those which control respiration and defecation, go into a state of violent vibration. Death comes as a result of asphyxiation (A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Chemical and Biological Warfare by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, Hill and Wang Press, 1982).

Inhaled nerve agent can produce casualties within minutes. For personnel engaged in mild activity, the median lethal dosage by inhalation is about 70 mg-min/m3. As an example, 50 percent of a group of unprotected personnel breathing at a normal rate of 15 liters per minute and exposed to 70 milligrams of Sarin per cubic meter of air for one minute will die if they do not receive medical treatment. For personnel involved in activities that increase breathing rate, the median lethal dosage can be as low as 20 mg-min/m3.

Incapacitation (muscle contraction and dimmed vision) occurs at approximately 35 milligrams for mild breathing rates. Very small concentrations of the vapor can incapacitate its victims. Vapor concentrations in a cubic meter would weigh less than 1/100th of an ounce at a lethal level ("Employment of Chemical Agents" Department of the Army Field Manual 3-10, Change 2, Feb. 28, 1971).

Robert J. Milmore and Thomas A. McHale


Robert J. Milmore is an FDNY firefighter assigned to Rescue Company 3 in the Bronx. He is also a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and was assigned as a medevac helicopter pilot to the 336th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance) and as a chemical officer during the Persian Gulf war. Milmore is a graduate of the U.S. Army Chemical Officer's Advanced Course and was advisor to the command on all matters relating to "NBC" (nuclear, biological and chemical) operations during the war. He received the Bronze Star for his actions. Thomas A. McHale is a commercial airline pilot and a U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. He commanded the 336th Medical Detachment during the Gulf war and worked closely with Milmore in NBC operations.