Chemical Agents

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Anhydrous Ammonia

Anhydrous ammonia is a common chemical used throughout the United States. It is a source of nitrogen fertilizer for crops, so it is used readily in the agriculture industry. If anhydrous ammonia is handled improperly, or if a tank is damaged, it can be disastrous for whoever is in contact with it. Anhydrous is not only a corrosive liquid, but it can also be a poisonous gas. It is also a colorless, flammable liquid that is very attracted to water. Common symptoms from anhydrous injuries include severe burns to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. Long term exposure can be fatal. Large doses of water can help to dilute the chemical. Supportive care can help the respiratory problems that may arise.

Blister Agents

Blister agents, or vesicants, cause skin burns and blisters, and can damage the eyes, airways, lungs, and other internal organs. Their action on cell components results in inhibition of cell division with a decrease in tissue respiration that eventually leads to cell death.

Vesicants include sulfur mustards, lewisite and dimethyl sulfate

  • Sulfur mustards are colorless, odorless chemicals. Symptoms can develop up to 12 hours, when the skin begins to turn red. Upper respiratory problems may also develop. Over several hours, small blisters appear and then combine to form larger blisters. There is nothing that can reverse the poisonous effects of mustard gas.
  • Lewsite is an oily, colorless liquid containing arsenic and producing immediate effects, causing burning or pain in the eyes, nose, and skin. Fresh air actually increases the pain. Later severe damage can occur to the skin, eyes, and airways. Treatment includes decontamination, use of the antidote, British Anti-Lewsite, and supportive care.
  • Dimethyl sulfate is an oily, colorless liquid that can be absorbed through the skin, ingestion, or inhalation through vapors. The substance is corrosive on ingestion and may cause side effects on other organs.  

Nerve Agents

Nerve agents are extremely toxic chemicals and the effects of nerve agents occur almost immediately. Nerve agents disrupt the messages that are carried by nerves, so any exposure can cause tightness of the chest, excessive salivation, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, blurred vision, vomiting, convulsions and death. Treatment for these chemicals includes atropine, pralidoximine chloride and diazepam.

  • Sarin is a human-made chemical warfare agent also known as GB and is a colorless, odorless liquid that mixes in water. Depending on the dose, effects can occur within a few minutes to an hour.
  • VX is a human-made chemical warfare agent that is an odorless, clear, or amber-colored, oily liquid. It is very slow to evaporate and is the most toxic nerve agent. Symptoms can occur immediately or up to 18 hours, depending on the exposure.
  • Tabun is a human-made chemical warfare agent also known as GA. It is a colorless to brownish-liquid. It is very heavy and settles close to the ground. Depending on exposure, symptoms can occur immediately or up to 18 hours.
  • Soman is a human-made chemical warfare agent also known as GD. It is a colorless, tasteless liquid. It has an odor of camphor or rotting fruit. Released Soman evaporates quickly, but those exposed can still develop symptoms quickly.

Suffocating Agents

Suffocating agents are chemicals that, when inhaled, cause fluid to build up in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe and eventually leading to death. Many of these chemicals are found in common pesticides such as parathion or malathion.

  • Phosgenes are toxic industrial chemicals that cause immediate irritation to the eyes, nose, and skin. Tissue damage can also occur within minutes, and respiratory problems follow shortly afterwards. There is no specific antidote, but decontaminating all exposed areas can help decrease tissue damage. Individuals exposed to the chemical may make a full recovery, but chronic bronchitis and emphysema have been reported as exposure side effects.
  • Cyanide is a colorless liquid or a gas that sometimes exhibits a “bitter almond” odor but may not have an odor. Cyanide, in large doses, will produce loss of consciousness within seconds and death may occur within minutes. Treatment depends on rapidly providing oxygen and the use of antidotes (amyl nitrate, sodium thiosulfate, and sodium nitrate). Exposure may occur through air, water, food or touching soil containing cyanide. Survivors of cyanide poisoning may develop damage to the heart and/or brain, as well as nerve damage.
  • Chlorine is a greenish-yellow gas with a very strong, irritating odor, which is similar to the odor of bleach. Immediate symptoms include eye and skin irritation. A large dose of Chlorine will cause lung irritation and can lead to death. There is no antidote, so quick response is important including moving to fresh air, supplying oxygen, or flushing the skin and eyes with large amounts of water. Suffocating agents are chemicals that, when inhaled, cause fluid to build up in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe and eventually leading to death. Many of these chemicals are found in common pesticides such as parathion or malathion.


  1. Crystalynn Kuntz

    Emergency Preparedness Regional Coordinator

  2. Kalen Ost

    Emergency Preparedness Information Specialist

  3. Public Health


    Physical Address
    500 E. Front Ave.
    Bismarck, ND 58504


    Directions

    Mailing Address
    P.O. Box 5503
    Bismarck, ND 58504

    Phone: 701-355-1540
    Fax: 701-221-6883