by and for citizen investigative journalists

Case Study: The Wikipedia page on Sarin

December 22, 2015

By Dan Kaszeta

Wikipedia is used widely as a reference tool. The nature of Wikipedia, however, means that it’s accuracy and reliability can be suspect at times. In the area of chemical and biological weapons, Wikipedia is not optimum. It has proven to be inaccurate in some cases, misleading in others, or containing only part of the story. Also, as with most information sources, Wikipedia isn’t very good at letting the reader know that there are other things that they should know, which might be very important, but which are not actually in the article. This case study is a dissection and analysis of the Wikipedia page on the chemical warfare agent commonly known as Sarin.  As Wikipedia constantly changes, I am using the 21 December 2015 version of the Sarin Wikipedia page as the baseline reference for this case study.  In the event that the Wikipedia page changes in the future, a PDF of the page for 21 December 2015 is located here at this link.

Working from top to bottom on the Wiki, the following issues presented themselves to me:

Issue 1: Sarin and UN Resolution 687

Sarin Wiki example 1

While most (but not all, see here) definitions of WMD would indeed cover Sarin. However, UN Security Council Resolution 687 does not actually mention Sarin. The footnoted reference doesn’t say what the page author claims it says. Therefore this reference is spurious and misleading.

Issue 2: Speed of Death

Sarin Wiki example 2

Exposure to Sarin probably won’t kill in one minute. This is somewhat misleading. The actual mechanism of death after exposure to Sarin is hypoxia. The body stops taking in oxygen because of airway obstruction (due to excessive salivation) and/or failure of the body’s muscles to make the lungs work properly. Compromise of cardiac function will prevent circulation of new, oxygenated blood around the body. This process won’t happen in 1 minute. Likewise, a death from Sarin exposure by inhalation can take much longer than 10 minutes, depending a wide variety of factors. So, the 1 to 10 minute figure in the Wikipedia page is not accurate. The literature varies widely on exactly how fast Sarin death occurs, with a very small statistical pool from which to draw accurate measurements. Sarin animal studies show death occurring a fair bit slower than a few minutes, even for fairly potent lethal doses by inhalation causing death after 9 minutes in rats. (Ref: R. Gupta [ed], Handbook of Toxicology of Chemical Warfare Agents, 2009. Page 62). I do not believe this reference is freely available online, but it is widely available in larger libraries.

Issue 3: Biperiden as “typical”

Sarin Wiki example 3

This section is somewhat misleading. While biperiden has been investigated as a nerve agent antidote (as correctly stated later in the article), it is not fielded or stockpiled in a widespread manner for this purpose. Use of the word “typically” is not correct here. In addition, the US government web page cited as footnote 5 does not mention biperiden. Use of this footnote to justify this sentence is incorrect.

Issue 4: “Usually Manufactured”

Sarin Wiki example 4

The chemistry is correct here. However, this passage is deceptive. There are numerous production pathways that lead to Sarin. There are two actual final steps to make Sarin. One is the step above wherein methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF) is combined with isopropyl alcohol, resulting in a 50:50 mix of Sarin and hydrogen fluoride (HF). The other method is quite different, mixing a cocktail of DF and methylphosphonic dichloride (DC) with isopropyl alcohol, yielding a mix of Sarin and hydrogen chloride. This process is referred to as the “Di-Di” process or method. It is misleading to imply that the DF + Alcohol method is the only way to make Sarin.

It is also misleading to say that the DF + Alcohol method is the “usual way” to make Sarin. The Di-Di method yielded a product which was not largely contaminated with HF. HF is nasty substance which is, in many ways, more dangerous than Sarin and rapidly destroys or degrades storage containers and weapon systems, as well as seriously reducing the shelf life of the Sarin. For this reason, the United States used the Di-Di method to product its very large stockpile of Sarin in the 1950s. All of the Sarin stockpiled by the US military was produced by the Di-Di method. A variant of the Di-Di method was also used by the USSR, and was one method tried by Iraq. (See here.) Use of the word “usually” is wrong in this context, when well over 90% of the Sarin ever made was not made by the indicated method.

Issue 5: Isopropylamine

Sarin Wiki example 5

This statement is wrong. This issue has come up before. The only recorded uses for isopropylamine in Sarin are in binary weapons, wherein DF and isopropyl alcohol are mixed on the way to the target (or right before launch, theoretically). The vast majority of Sarin manufactured in world history did not contain isopropylamine, including the Sarin made by Nazi Germany, the US, the USSR, and even the Aum cult. This issue has already been discussed at length on Bellingcat, in this post.

Issue 6:  Confusion over US Sarin production dates.

Sarin Wiki example 6Sarin Wiki example 12

This photo and this statement provide incorrect information about Sarin production in the United States. US Sarin was produced at Rocky Mountain Arsenal. However, production ceased in August 1957. The re-distillation claim is correct, however. If the photo does date from 1970, it would be of storage or possibly redistillation activities, not production.

Issue 7: Shelf Life of Sarin

Sarin Wiki example 8

This passage contains some errors. Correctly manufactured Sarin, with residual acid largely removed, correctly stored, has a shelf life measured well into multiples of years not weeks. US Sarin produced at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, albeit with additives, lasted well into the 21st century, much of it as good as the day it was made. Mind you, significant research and development efforts were undertaken to ensure this shelf life. Thousands of tons of Sarin produced in 1953-1957 lasted through the cold war. This is not possible if it has a shelf life of months. Sarin with it’s impurities left in after manufacture, however, does have a very poor shelf life.

Issue 8: Toxicity relative to cyanide

Sarin Wiki example 10

This statement is vague and ill-defined. There are multiple forms of cyanide and multiple routes of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, etc.) This statement does not state the basis of comparison, i.e. a like for like respiratory exposure over a specified period of time.

Issue 9: Diagnostics

Sarin Wiki example 11This paragraph is not up to date. While it is accurate in what it says, it is quite dated.  There is a newer technique, used by the WHO/OPCW investigatory mission to Syria, called fluoride regeneration. This technique, described here and here, can allow for post-exposure diagnostics for a much longer period after exposure than IMPA assays or cholinesterase activity.

Conclusion:

The Wikipedia article on Sarin is not terribly accurate. I would not rely on this information as it is a cocktail of truth, half-truth, misleading information, and occasional errors.  Alas, other chemical and biological warfare-related Wiki articles contain similar errors.  Others may find other errors in this particular article.  If so, contact me by the comments section and I will include additional errors in this article as time permits.

Dan Kaszeta

Dan is the managing director of Strongpoint Security Ltd, and lives and works in London, UK. He has 24 years experience in CBRN response, security, and antiterrorism.

22 Comments

  1. Tom

    The accuracy issues of Wikipedia are not specific to chemical weapons or any other subject matter. They are also very well known.

    However, consider that someone with no knowledge of sarin (out whatever topic) would learn a lot from reading the article, and it would almost all be true. Some of the detail be untrue, or partially true.

    People who need to know the finer detail, or need to be certain of the accuracy of the information should not be relying on Wikipedia, due to its inherent limitations.

    Reply
    • Dan Kaszeta

      Actually, I disagree. Some of the errors are fundamental. I disagree with a “well, it’s an overview for the masses, so it doesn’t have to be all true” is a dangerous path to trod.

      Reply
  2. Randy Dread

    Wikipedia can be edited by anyone. Time writing an off-wiki critique of the wiki article would be better spent editing the article itself.

    Reply
    • Dan Kaszeta

      I have done just that. I have fixed many of the errors and added much additional information. I will add some more when I get a chance.

      Reply
    • Harald K

      There is a lot of political ugliness and jockeying for position on wikipedia. You certainly can’t be blamed for wanting to document stuff off-site before fighting for its inclusion. Although that is one of the many things that make you unpopular/leave you open for attacks if you do it.

      Reply
  3. Randy Dread

    Dan wrote:
    “This photo and this statement provide incorrect information about Sarin production in the United States. US Sarin was produced at Rocky Mountain Arsenal. However, production ceased in August 1957.”

    Let me get this straight, the article says production ceased in 1956 but it actually ceased in August 1957, and you have a source to prove it?

    OK, let’s go ahead and edit the article now and add the source. Done..

    Reply
  4. Manfred te Grotenhuis

    First off, I really like what you did Dan, including of course repairing the errors. I’m not going to defend Wikipedia here but I really wonder whether other sources are more free of such errors you found in the Sarin article. I’m a statistician and found Wikipedia a better source related to my work than many others. Maybe just because we like to correct each other and by doing so, enhance quality. Best wishes, Manfred
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliability_of_Wikipedia

    Reply
    • Dan Kaszeta

      I agree with you. Wikipedia is certainly quite useful in some areas. This current exercise has been good for me because it has forced me to learn how to do a better job of writing material on Wiki pages. Thanks for the vote of support and I’m glad you like what I did.

      Reply
  5. Mad Dog

    Dan would seem to be renewing our awareness about the veracity or accuracy of Wiki. Some articles continue to be in error because no one in the know gives a rat’s ass about the subject, some because the fighting that goes on behind the scenes makes correction all but impossible, and some because there are competing views of the facts. Bringing this particular article to our attention and working to correct it is really a service to all of us. So thanks Dan and I (and others) look forward to more articles from you.

    Reply
    • Dan Kaszeta

      Thanks for that. After the 8/21 Sarin attack, I kept getting into arguments with journalists who were clearly just quoting the (then) inadequate Wiki page and arguing with me over it. After all, I’ve held Sarin in my hands (admittedly through a butyl rubber glove) and spent much of 1995 studying the old US nerve agent production program and interviewing old guys who used to make the stuff. So what do I know… Anyway, the vote of support is much appreciated.

      Reply
      • Mad Dog

        I was in Japan during the whole Aum thing and one of my associates was on the subway train that got hit nearby work. He had to destroy a nice Armani suit, but I guess he was luck there (He was affected a bit, but recovered).

        Reply
      • Randy Dread

        I have held a number of toxic chemicals in my hand and even carried out analytical tests on them after being taught the routine.

        Doesn’t mean i knew the science.

        Reply
  6. Mad Dog

    However, you know enough science to be able to dispute the findings posted here? Right?

    Reply
    • Randy Dread

      didn’t say I did. qualifed chemists do though, should there be any dispute.

      Kaszeta is certainly not qualified to talk about chemistry as he is not a chemist.

      Reply
      • Dan Kaszeta

        Randy,

        I went to university form 1987 to 1991, and graduate school from 1991-1995 part time. You make the mistake of assuming that I can only learn about chemical weapons from a chemistry degree and you seem to think I went to no training courses whatsoever outside of my B.A. and M.A or that whatever knowledge I have could only have been acquired in academic degree programs I went to over 20 years ago. This is absurd reductionist bullshit logic. In reality, I went to many training courses, accumulating to well over 2000 hours of specialty training, much of it in chemical, biological, and radiological subject. Indeed, very few of the CBRN specialists I worked with over the course of my career were degree’d chemists.

        As your position is not logical, I am taking the view that it is a personal attack.

        Reply
      • Mad Dog

        Just gotta love the conclusion you came up with Randy. Really makes sense and answers my question fully, i.e. you have no information to dispute what was posted here and you live under the assumption that only people with a specific degree are qualified in specific fields. However, I assume this also means the legal field and some of your statements lead me to believe you are not really qualified at all, except maybe as an ambulance chaser. How about a bit more substance when you accuse folks like Dan.

        Reply
  7. Aleks

    Nice article with good work on Wikipedia; Wikipedia is certainly not in an optimal state right now, but I still believe that it’s the best source of knowledge we can get for free without depending on other providers of knowledge (and I’m thankful in a similar manner to OpenStreetMap, there being the difference to Wiki that most information is a bit easier to verify than most Wikipedia info). That being said, I can add to your research that, if you don’t mind relying on Google, you can find access to a lot of scientific literature there, too, and I did a bit regarding #2, finding multiple sources to altogether conclude that the 1-10 minute statement is probably an exaggeration. https://www.google.com/search?tbm=bks&q=sarin+lethality

    Best Regards,
    Aleks

    Reply
  8. bkabkabababa

    there is an error in your article: you wrote again HF and not HCl as the product of the Di-Di method

    Reply
    • Dan Kaszeta

      Thanks for that. I fixed it. This is what happens when I write an article over the Christmas holidays…..

      Reply

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