On February 13 in a Malaysian airport, authorities say, two women sprayed poison on Kim Jong-nam – the exiled half-brother of North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong Un – leading to Jong-nam’s death.
“VX is the most toxic substance known – 10 milligrams of the oily liquid on your skin, less than a drop, is lethal,” Debora MacKenzie wrote for New Scientist.
Chemical-weapons experts told MacKenzie they weren’t fully convinced VX caused Jong-nam’s death, since at least one of the women accused of killing him didn’t seem to show any symptoms.
Either way, it’s worth taking a look at the toxin, why it’s deadly, and who has it. Business Insider compiled the information below from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Reuters, and other sources.
What the toxin is and does
VX is a nerve agent that:
- Is an amber-colored liquid with the consistency of motor oil. Dissolves in water and has no odor or taste. Overstimulates muscles, glands, and other tissues, and can stop breathing. Can work within minutes or hours, depending on the dose. Can be lethal if it touches the skin, yet is more toxic if inhaled. Has a full chemical name of O-ethyl S-2-diisopropylaminoethyl methyl phosphonothioate.
What the symptoms are
- Getty Images
Head: confusion, drowsiness, and headache. Eyes: blurry vision, eye pain, small/pinpoint pupils. Mouth, nose, and lungs: cough, drooling, runny nose, rapid breathing, chest tightness. Skin: excessive sweating. Digestion: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, increased urination. Cardiovascular: abnormal blood pressure and heart rate, weakness.
- Convulsions Loss of consciousness Paralysis Breathing failure
How it’s treated
There is no one-stop antidote for all symptoms. But according to Gerry Doyle at The New York Times, “Injections of atropine, if administered quickly after exposure, can counteract the lethal effects of VX.”
Here’s how the CDC recommends treating people who think they’ve been exposed to VX:
- Get away from the exposure area and move to fresh air, getting to higher ground if possible, since the gas is denser than air and sinks. Rapidly remove clothing, tearing it off if necessary. To protect from further exposure, place the contaminated clothes in a bag, then seal within another bag, as soon as possible. Wash the entire body with excessive soap and water. Flush the eyes for 10-15 minutes if vision is blurred. If swallowed, don’t induce vomiting or drink fluids. Seek medical attention immediately.
Who has VX nerve gas
Although the United Kingdom developed VX in the 1950s, CNN reports it was first used in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. It was also used by a cult in 1994 and 1995 to attack people on the Tokyo subway system and may have accidentally killed a bunch of sheep in Utah in the 1960s, according to The Times.
Except for limited use in research, manufacturing VX is banned by countries that ratified the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention in the 1990s. VX is listed in that treaty as a weapon of mass destruction alongside sarin, mustards, ricin, and other deadly toxins.
The only four countries that haven’t ratified the treaty are Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan, according to the Arms Control Association.
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, North Korea may possess at least 2,500 metric tons of chemical weapons, and presumably, VX is part of that stockpile.
“Evidently, the North Koreans have it and managed to weaponize it,” Rick Francona, a military analyst, told CNN.