Kim Jong Nam murder saga: What is the VX nerve agent?
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Kim Jong Nam murder saga: What is the VX nerve agent?

THE unexpected killing of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of the North Korean leader, has quickly developed into a tale of international intrigue.

In the two weeks since the Feb 13 , what was at first thought to be the death of an unknown man about to board a flight at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (klia2), has turned into the story of a Cold War-style assassination linked to the opaque regime of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who is Jong Nam’s half brother.

Amid the diplomatic row that ensued between Malaysia and North Korea over Jong Nam’s body, several suspects were named and some believed to be directly involved in the killing were taken into custody. Interpol has also been asked to issue alerts for four suspects said to have fled to Pyongyang since the murder.

Meanwhile, local authorities have yet to reveal the cause of death. The belief, however, is that Jong Nam was swabbed with an extremely toxic substance and the chemical killed him almost immediately.

On Friday, some answers came forth, deepening the mystery. Malaysian police revealed the chemistry test results on swabs taken from Jong Nam’s face and eyes, and said in it, local forensics experts found traces of the chemical substance S-2-diisopropylamino-ethylmethylphosphonothioate, also known as the “VX nerve agent”.

A quick search online said the VX nerve agent is classified according to international conventions as a weapon of mass destruction.

But what exactly is this little heard of toxic substance? And how does it work?

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A screenshot of CCTV footage said to be of the murder of Kim Jong Nam. Image via Youtube

The VX Agent

  • An extremely toxic substance used in chemical warfare as a nerve agent.
  • The substance is also classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations in UN Resolution 687.
  • The liquid’s tasteless and odorless from with an amber-like color makes it difficult to detect.

How deadly is the agent?

According to the United States Centre of Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to VX can cause death in minutes.

As little as one drop of VX on the skin can be fatal.

Nerve agents are chemically similar to organophosphate pesticides and exert their effects by interfering with the normal function of the nervous system.

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Nerve agent VX (chemical weapon) structural formula. Source: Shutterstock

How can it be used to poison?

Indoor Air – as a liquid spray (aerosol) or as a vapor when temperatures are high.

Water – The agent can contaminate water; it can break down in water to produce other toxic compounds.

Food – VX can also be used to contaminate food

Outdoor Air – As an aerosol or as a vapor in high temperatures.

Agriculture – It has the potential to contaminate agricultural products if released as vapour.

Exposure routes

VX can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, or eye contact.

Signs and symptoms of poisoning

The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says because VX is odourless, a victim may not know when he or she is exposed to the chemical. Within seconds to hours of exposure, however, they may experience some or all of the symptoms below.

  • Abnormally low or high blood pressure
  • Blurred vision
  • Chest tightness
  • Confusion
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Drooling and excessive sweating
  • Drowsiness
  • Eye pain
  • Headache
  • Increased urination
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or abdominal pain
  • Rapid breathing
  • Runny nose
  • Slow or fast heart rate
  • Small, pinpoint pupils
  • Watery eyes
  • Weakness

History and past uses

  • Chemists Ranajit Ghosh La-a and J.F. Newman discovered the V-series nerve agents at ICI in 1952.
  • Commercial research on similar compounds ceased in 1955 after discovering lethality to humans. The United States produced large amounts of VX in 1961.
  • In December 1994 and January 1995, Masami Tsuchiya of Japenese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo synthesized 100 to 200 grams of VX which was used to attack three persons, injuring two and killing a 28-year-old man. The dead victim was thought to be spying on the cult.
  • The United States, Russia, and Syria have possessed VX but the three countries have begun eliminating their stockpiles in stages since 1990.

** Information compiled from the CDC and other online sources