The Smell of Death: Confirming Decomposition using Volatiles in the Air

Odour mortis, or the ‘smell of death’, refers to the chemicals released from the body during decomposition. Renowned forensic anthropologist Arpad Vass, who has studied the chemical changes occurring in the body after death for many years, recently shared the details of a particularly interesting scenario. The article, published in the May 2019 issue of Forensic Science International, details a fascinating case in which the occurrence of human decomposition was demonstrated based solely on chemical compounds in the air for the first time, without any human remains actually being found at the scene. The article doesn’t specify suspect or victim details, but anyone familiar with the case will recognise it instantly.

First, a brief introduction. In 2008, a woman was charged with the murder of her daughter, allegedly storing the victim’s body in the boot of her car for several days before disposing of the remains and dumping the car. Police had initially been alerted to the incident by the suspect’s parents, who had picked up their daughter’s abandoned car and noticed a foul decomposition-like odour coming from the vehicle. Coupled with the fact they had not seen their granddaughter in several weeks, the suspect’s mother promptly called 911.

The police soon took possession of the car and agreed that the scent of decomposition was emanating from the vehicle. Numerous cadaver dogs, specifically trained to detect odours from decaying bodies, alerted to the back of the car, further suggesting some kind of decomposing remains had been stored in the boot of the car. Fly pupae were also discovered. Entomological evidence is frequently associated with decomposing human remains, with flies and various other insects known to visit corpses to feed or lay eggs. Although no human remains were found in the car, several weeks later the body of the missing girl was found in a wooded area near the suspect’s home, and the case promptly turned into a murder investigation, with the victim’s mother as the prime suspect. However with minimal physical evidence linking the body to the suspect’s car, law enforcement turned to a somewhat unconventional tool to aid their investigation.

Various pieces of evidence were recovered from the vehicle, including segments of carpet, scrapings from the tyre wells, and various pieces of rubbish found in the car. Interestingly, investigators also collected some air samples from the boot of the car. Air can be sampled from remote locations using a technique that utilises air pumps to draw in gaseous analytes from the environment and capture them in a sorbent trap. This collection of trapped compounds can then be transported to a laboratory for analysis. In this case, about 35L of air was collected from the vehicle into a type of sorbent tube, then analysed using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). GC/MS is a well-established analytical technique, allowing scientists to separate the individual chemicals in a mixture and identify those components. You can read more about how mass spectrometry works here.

This process allowed researchers to figure out exactly which volatile chemicals were present in the suspect’s vehicle and establish whether these are everyday compounds likely to be found in a car, or if they had some other source.

In the years leading up to this case a great deal of research had been conducted at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility. At this facility researchers were investigating, among other things, the odours produced during the decomposition of a human body. The odours created during this process are the result of volatile compounds produced as the body decomposes, and research has demonstrated that hundreds of individual chemical components are formed during this complex process. As part of research at the university, researchers had constructed a vast database of hundreds of chemicals detected during the process of human decomposition, including the different decomposition stages at which those chemicals appear. By comparing the chemicals detected in the vehicle with those stored in the database, it was possible to identify compounds known to be produced during the decomposition process. There was an 80% match between the compounds detected in the boot of the car and those chemicals considered to be relevant to human decomposition. Furthermore, unusually high levels of chloroform were also detected in the boot of the car.

The results from the air samples collected and chemical extracts from various other artefacts in the car led the researcher to conclude that there was a very high likelihood of a decomposition event occurring in the boot of the car. Many of the compounds detected in the vehicle could only be logically explained by the presence of decomposing remains.

Despite these findings (and various other pieces of evidence presented in court), the jury reached a verdict of not guilty for the charge of murder. Not too surprising an outcome, considering the use of air analysis to detect decomposition had not previously been used in a legal investigation. However in closing arguments, the defence stated that the victim had in fact been placed in the vehicle for transport (claiming the victim’s death had been accidental), ultimately confirming the results of the analysis.

 

Vass, A. A. Death is in the air: confirmation of decomposition without a corpse. Forensic Sci. Int. (2019). doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2019.05.005

Vass, A. A. Odor mortis. Forensic Sci. Int. 222, 234–241 (2012).

 

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Detecting Homemade Bombs & Explosives in Sweat

Detecting Homemade Bombs & Explosives in Sweat

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are often used in the implementation of terrorist attacks, for instance the 2005 London underground bombings, the suicide bomb attack during a concert in Manchester, and the 2015 Paris attacks. Unfortunately the components required for building these devices are commercially available and the bombs relatively easy to construct.

Many explosives leave a characteristic trace after being handled or detonated, and it is essential that investigators can rapidly identify the components used in homemade explosives. Furthermore, the ability to trace the explosives back to particular individuals and terrorist cells is essential in preventing future attacks. Unfortunately effectively detecting and tracing explosives and explosive precursors can prove difficult. On top of this, after the production and implementation of IEDs, it can be difficult to prove a suspects’ involvement in bomb construction.

Researchers at King’s College London and Northumbria University have been working on developing new ways to detect homemade explosives.

The newly developed approach, recently published in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta, uses a technique known as ion chromatography high resolution mass spectrometry (IC-HRMS) to separate and detect chemical components. By applying the technique to compounds commonly encountered in the analysis of explosive residues, the method was shown to be effective in detecting a large number of components used to make bombs, capable of detecting just trace amounts of the chemicals faster than previous techniques.

Upon developing this method, the team of researchers then demonstrated that the approach could be applied to the analysis of human sweat, with the aim of indicating an individual has recently handled explosives. Participants were made to handle Pyrodex powder, a black powder propellant used in firearm cartridges. After handling the powder for a few minutes, palm sweat and fingermark samples were then collected at numerous timepoints over several hours. Analytes related to the explosive material were readily detected using the method. The real-world implementation of this technique could help prove contact between a suspect and explosive material or explosive precursors.

 

Gallidabino et al. Targeted and non-targeted forensic profiling of black powder substitutes and gunshot residue using gradient ion chromatography – high resolution mass spectrometry (IC-HRMS). Analytica chimica acta. 2019, In Press.

Developing Fingerprints on Metals to Aid Knife & Gun Crime Investigations

Developing Fingerprints on Metals to Aid Knife & Gun Crime Investigations

Fingerprints are something of a staple in forensic science. For over 100 years we have used the unique details of fingerprints to identify victims and suspects, and draw connections between people and objects to place suspects at crime scenes. Fingermarks are encountered on all kinds of surfaces that can have an effect on how easy it is to visualise the mark and for how long the mark persists. As a result, the market is flooded with products for developing fingerprints, from powders to glues to chemical reagents.

Despite the options available, some surfaces, for instance metals, still prove somewhat tricky when it comes to developing prints. This is due to various factors, such as how the chemical results in the fingermark and developing reagents may react with the surface. This is obviously problematic when trying to obtain fingerprints from knives and firearms, a matter of particular importance right now worldwide. For years researchers have been examining methods of improving the detection of fingerprints on metals, including metal vapour deposition and different chemical reagents, but reliable techniques are still few and far between.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham and University of Derby in the UK are using analytical chemistry to solve this problem. Using a technique called Time-of-Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry, or ToF-SIMS, researchers have developed a way of producing images of fingerprints of various metal surfaces. ToF-SIMS utilises an ion beam which is passed along the surface of the sample, causing ions (charged chemical components) to be emitted from the sample. These are then analysed by mass spectrometry and the results used to produce a kind of map of the surface.

Researchers deposited fingermarks on various types of commonly-encountered metals, such as stainless steel and aluminium, and studied the effects of time on the ability to visualise the prints. Cyanoacrylate (or superglue) fuming, a traditional technique particularly popular when analysing metal surfaces, proved to be unreliable, with the print’s quality degrading rapidly or disappearing completely in just a matter of days. However using this new mass spectrometry-based approach, fingermarks could be visualised in samples up to 26 days old, a vast improvement on traditional methods.

The high-resolution images produced sufficient detail to not only observe ridge detail in the marks, but even the shape and position of individual sweat pores. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly in a forensic context, the technique is non-destructive. Current methods of visualising fingerprints tend to involve adding a powder or chemical to the print, inevitably altering and potentially contaminating it. But the use of ToF-SIMS ensures the print remains intact, so further development or analysis techniques can be employed if required.

By enabling the visualisation of fingerprints that previous techniques may have failed to reveal, this method has the potential to not only aid investigators as they face the ongoing rise of knife and gun crime, but could also be applied to cold cases. However it is important to note that fingermarks deposited as part of research are not always indicative of real-world samples. In reality the fingerprints we leave behind can vary greatly in the amount of material deposited and the type of material being left behind. Traces of anything handled can be deposited in the fingermark, adding many potential variables to the real-world applicability of this kind of work. Despite this, the study demonstrates a promising new technique for the development of fingermarks on metals, which could have great implications in the investigation of violent gun and knife crimes.

 

Thandauthapani et al. Exposing latent fingermarks on problematic metal surfaces using time of flight secondary ion mass spectroscopy. Science & Justice. 2018, 58(6).

Interview with Forensic Taphonomist Professor Shari Forbes

What is your current job role and what does this entail?

Forbes_1360

Forensic taphonomist Professor Shari Forbes.

I am a Canada 150 Research Chair in Forensic Thanatology and the Director of the Secure Site for Research in Thanatology (SSRT). The SSRT represents the first human taphonomy facility in Canada and is the only place in this distinct climate where we can study the process of human decomposition through body donation. My role is to lead and conduct research at this facility, specifically in the field of forensic thanatology and decomposition chemistry. This role also involves engaging collaboratively with our external partners who can benefit from the research and training we conduct at the facility, notably police, forensic services, search and rescue teams, military, human rights organisations, and anyone involved in death investigations.

What initially attracted you to your particular field of research?

I have always had a passion for science and knew that I wanted to pursue a career in a scientific field where I could clearly see the impact of my work. When I was in high school, I enjoyed reading crime novels and probably understood what forensic science entailed better than most people (this was before the advent of CSI, Bones, NCIS, etc.!). My love of science combined with my interest in criminal investigations naturally led to pursuing a career in this field. At the time, there was only one university in Australia that offered a forensic science degree so the decision of where and what to study was relatively easy. Although chemistry wasn’t my strongest subject at school, I enjoyed the degree because it applied chemistry to forensic science and in this way, I could understand how my skills would help police investigations.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently involved in?

My research focuses on the chemical processes of soft tissue decomposition and the by-products released into the environment. This can include compounds released into air, water, soil, textiles, or anything surrounding the body. The majority of my research at the moment focuses on the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air to better understand the composition of decomposition odour. Although this is not pleasant work, it is very important to understand the key compounds used by cadaver-detection dogs for locating human remains. If we can identify the key VOCs and determine when they are present, we can enhance the training and success of cadaver-detection dogs in complex environments such as mass disasters.

You were heavily involved in the establishment of the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research. What were some of the greatest challenges in this and how has the facility since developed?

It took approximately 3.5 years to establish AFTER from the day we started planning it to the day it opened in January 2016. I have since realised this is not that long compared to some of the other facilities that are currently operating but there were challenges and hurdles that we faced along the way. In Australia, establishing a human taphonomy facility essentially requires three things: 1) an organisation willing to lead and support it; 2) a body donation program; and 3) accessible land that can be used for taphonomic research. We were fortunate that the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) had these three things and we also had the financial and in-kind support of all of our partners including academic institutions, police services and forensic laboratories. Once we had this support and made the decision to proceed, we still needed to seek approval from our local council to use the land for this purpose; apply for funding to build the facility; and apply to have the facility licenced to hold human remains for the purposes of taphonomic research and training. Thankfully, everyone we engaged with was highly supportive of the facility and willing to work with us to ensure we followed all legislation and regulations. We also ensured we had a strong communication plan to raise awareness with the general public about the benefits of these facilities and how important the research is to assist in the resolution of death investigations.

AnnaZhu_UTSScience_1750

The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research

Since opening, we have been amazed by the general interest in AFTER and the number of people wanting to donate their body. We have also increased our partnerships to benefit more police and forensic services as well as others services such as the cemetery industry. We are currently planning to provide more training opportunities, particularly relating to disaster victim recovery and identification, and to establish more AFTER facilities across Australia to better represent the diverse climates experienced across the country.

You recently left the University of Technology Sydney to relocate to Canada. How will your role and research be changing as you make this move?

I was honored to be the Director of AFTER and it was a difficult decision to leave Australia. However, I recognise the importance of these facilities and the need to establish them in other countries so when I was asked to open Canada’s first human taphonomy facility, it was an opportunity I could not turn down. My experience in Australia has already assisted greatly in establishing the facility in Quebec and we will certainly be able to open the facility much more rapidly as a result. Like in Australia, we hope it acts as a template for future facilities across Canada since this country also has very diverse climates. In reality, neither my role nor my research will change significantly. The greatest change will be the climate and its impact on the process of decomposition!

Finally, do you have any advice for young scientists eager to pursue a career in your field of work?

It sounds like a cliché, but I always encourage students to pursue a career in a field they are passionate about. If you had told me 20 years ago that I would being leading not one, but two ‘body farms’ I would never have believed it (especially after just reading Patricia Cornwell’s novel that gave these facilities that name!). But I knew I was passionate about studying a science that was deeply applied and had a clear impact on society. I had no idea where it would lead me or even if I would get a job in the field, but without that passion, I would not have been motivated to do any of the things I have done; namely: complete my degree, continue on with a PhD, do research in decomposition chemistry, and ultimately become an academic so that I could continue my passion of conducting forensic taphonomy research. So if you are going to do something for the next fifty years, make sure it is something you love doing!

Find out more on the Secure Site for Research in Thanatology website.

 

This is Part 17 of our series of interviews with forensic professionals. If you’re a forensic scientist (academic or industry) or a crime scene investigator and would like to be part of this series of interviews, get in touch by emailing locardslabblog[at]gmail.com.

Tracking Illicit Drugs with Strontium Isotope Analysis

Tracking Illicit Drugs with Strontium Isotope Analysis

The manufacture and distribution of illicit drugs such as heroin is a primary focus of many major law enforcement organisations worldwide, including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the United States and the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, as drug shipments pass hands between dealers and cross borders so rapidly, it can be difficult if not impossible to trace a batch of drugs back to an initial manufacturer. As a result of this, the chances of locating and arresting the manufacturers of illicit drugs can be slim.

To a forensic drugs analyst, a whole range of characteristics can be examined and used to classify and compare different batches of the same drug, including physical appearance, packaging, and chemical composition. To an extent, heroin chemical signatures are already beneficial in comparing different batches of the drug in attempts to establish links and possible sources of the narcotics. This may be based on agents or adulterants a product has been cut with, and the relative concentrations of those substances. The manufacturing process itself can vary in terms of chemicals and apparatus used and the skills of the manufacturer, resulting in further characteristic differences in the chemical profile. However these differences may not be distinct enough to be valuable and are certainly not able to pinpoint the country from which a batch originated. Though there is still no reliable method of tracing an illicit drug back to a particular location, ongoing research is aiming to change this.

One method of studying the history and even origin of a sample is to use isotopic composition. Isotopes are different forms of elements that are incorporated into substances in the environment in varying ratios and abundances, influenced by a number of factors that can alter these ratios. These processes can be described as isotopic fractionation. Interestingly, isotopic ratios can be characteristic to different regions of the world, enabling certain materials to be traced back to the geographic region based on the ratios of particular isotopes contained within that material. With this in mind, they have often been used to trace unidentified human remains to a particular location or study the origin of food products. Focusing on isotopes allows for heroin samples to be studied and compared based on regional characteristics as oppose to the variation caused by the production process.

For the first time, researchers at Florida International University have utilised strontium isotope ratio analysis to determine the provenance of illicit heroin samples. 186 unadulterated, undiluted heroin samples of known origin were obtained from a number of geographic regions including Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, South America, and Mexico. Of a particularly challenging nature is South American heroin and SA-like Mexican heroin, which can be extremely difficult to differentiate based on their chemical compositions alone. Heroin samples were dissolved via a microwave-assisted acid digestion method before being subjected to a technique known as a multi-collector inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry (MC-ICP-MS). This instrument utilises an inductively coupled plasma ion source to ionise target analytes, which are then separated and analysed by the mass spectrometer. The use of MC-ICP-MS allows for the strontium concentration of particular samples to be determined. The strontium isotope ratio (87Sr/86Sr) value of each individual sample was then compared with the overall mean values of ratios from different regions in order to establish the likely origin of that particular heroin sample. Samples from the same geographic region would be expected to exhibit a similar isotope ratio.

icpms

Multi-collector inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometer (MC-ICP-MS) Source: www.thermofisher.com

The results demonstrated the possibility of differentiating between heroin of different geographic origin. South American and Mexican heroin samples were correctly classified 82% and 77% of the time respectively. South East and South West Asian heroin samples were somewhat more difficult to differentiate due to more of an overlap between strontium isotope ratio values. SE Asian samples were correctly classified 63% of the time and SW Asian samples only 56% of the time. It is not clear whether this elemental strontium is endogenous or the result of external contamination, but either way it is sufficiently characteristic to be associated with a particular geographic location.

The strontium isotope composition of heroin can be affected by a number of factors, including the soil in which components are grown and groundwater in the area, which can result in region-specific isotope compositions. The use of strontium isotope ratio analysis has presented promising results in the origin determination of illicit heroin. Although a larger scale study incorporating samples of a more worldwide origin would be ideal, initial results suggest that this technique could allow for an unknown illicit drug sample to be traced back to a country of origin, aiding criminal intelligence agencies in the war against drugs.

 

Debord, J., Pourmand, A., Jantzi, S., Panicker, S. & Almirall, J. Profiling of Heroin and Assignment of Provenance by 87Sr/86Sr Isotope Ratio Analysis. Inorg Chim Acta. In press (2017).

Keeping the Skies Safe with Analytical Chemistry

Ever since events such as 9/11, the Lockerbie bombing and the (fortunately) failed shoe bomber, the stringency of airport security has been ever increasing. Anyone who has passed through an airport has no doubt witnessed the occasional swabbing of luggage or electronic items. The staff will take a quick swab of the item, stick it into a mysterious machine and usually send the passenger on their way with little explanation of what has just occurred.

But what exactly are they testing for in this scenario, and just what is the instrument they’re using?

As one might expect, the biggest target of this security step is explosive substances as a counter-terrorism measure, in addition to illicit narcotics in an attempt to crack down on drug trafficking. In an airport setting, the analytical testing technique of choice is ion mobility spectrometry.

Ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) is an analytical technique used to identify chemical compounds based on the differences in the movement of ions under an electric field. The concept for the technique was established in the early twentieth century, however it was not until the 1970s that the instrumentation was actually properly developed. There are currently tens of thousands of IMS devices deployed around the world. Not only are they utilised in airports for drug and explosives screening, but also by the military for the detection of chemical warfare agents and in industrial settings to monitor air quality. The range of applications is potentially vast, but the principles of operation are the same.

As you may have witnessed, a small swab is rubbed over the surface to be tested, typically a piece of luggage or an electronic device such as a laptop, before being inserted into the ion mobility spectrometer. As the sample needs to be introduced in its gaseous form, the swab may be subjected to heating in order to thermally desorb analytes from the swab and allow them to be transported into the instrument for analysis. In order to manipulate the analytes entering the instrument, they must first be converted into ions, their charged form. Ionisation is typically achieved using a radioactive source, such as 63Ni (nickel-63) or 241Am (Americium-241), which first form reactant ion species from the carrier gas (usually air), which then leads to the ionisation of the sample material. These newly-formed ions will then enter a region under an electric field and drift towards a series of electrodes. The ions will pass through the drift region at different speeds depending on the shape and size of the ion clusters and strike the electrodes, the signals being amplified and detected. Depending on the instrument and needs of the analysis, either positive or negative ions will be produced (in some cases both simultaneously).

ims

IMS schematic. Source: Smiths Detection (www.smithsdetection.com)

The IMS utilised in airports will typically hold a database of known explosive and narcotic substances against which to compare samples. There will be a certain threshold, typically based on peak intensity, that must be reached before a positive identification will be indicated, and if there is a “match”, the operator will be alerted to a potential identification.

In comparison to other analytical tools available, ion mobility spectrometers are far from being the best. For instance mass spectrometry, an alternative technique for the analysis and identification of chemical compounds, can offer greater sensitivity, higher resolution, improved accuracy and better identification. So why use IMS? It essentially comes down to cost and ease of use. The simple design and ability to operate at atmospheric pressure means the instruments can be fairly small in size, some even being hand-held and so rendering them completely portable. They have low power consumption, so can simply be powered by a few AA batteries. The ease of use of the IMS means anyone can be trained to use the instrument, thus technical or scientific expertise is not required.

But what is perhaps most important for use in an airport setting with potentially thousands of passengers each hour, is the ability to conduct analyses quickly, and this is something that the IMS can offer. Many commercial ion mobility-based instruments can provide results in a matter of seconds. For instance, the IONSCAN by Barringer (now owned by Smiths Detection) boasts the ability to detect over 40 explosives and narcotics in just 8 seconds.

In a security setting there are three primary types of IMS that may be encountered. The smallest of the devices are handheld and sample by drawing in analytes present in the atmosphere. These may be used to analyse potential hazards relating to unattended baggage, for example. The second type, which is perhaps the most commonly encountered IMS in airports, is a benchtop instrument which requires introduction of the sample via some type of swab. And finally, some airport security units may utilise a larger, human-sized IMS portal. This setup uses airflow to dislodge particles of explosives or drugs from clothing or the passenger’s body and analyse them.

Unsurprisingly, the instruments are not infallible, and false positive or negative results are a possibility. Some ions will have the same drift time so may be indistinguishable from known explosives or drugs, triggering an alarm. In actual fact this response may simply have been caused by a cosmetic or pharmaceutical product that happens to produce a response similar to a known narcotic. On the contrary, dirt, oil and other contaminants may mask the presence of substances of interest, thus causing no alert despite the presence of a drug or explosive.

Furthermore, the IMS is somewhat limited in that it can only identify the presence of a compound contained within its database. So whereas it may be able to detect common explosives such as RDX, TNT and PETN, and frequently encountered narcotics such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis, it would not necessarily alert to the presence of an unknown compound (unless it was very similar in chemical structure to something in the database).

Fortunately research in the field of analytical chemistry is constantly ongoing, aiming to improve instrumentation and analytical techniques to resolve these issues and ultimately produce more reliable and robust security measures.

 

References

G. Ewing et al. A critical review of ion mobility spectrometry for the detection of explosive and explosive related compounds. Talanta. 54 (2001) 515-529.

Homeland Security Science & Technology. IMS-Based Trace Explosives Detectors for First Responders. [online] Available: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/IMSTraceExploDetect-SUM_0506-508.pdf

Smiths Detection. Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS). [online] Available: https://www.smithsdetection.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&layout=item&id=40&Itemid=638

VX and Other Deadly Nerve Agents

It has now been confirmed that Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, may have been assassinated using a highly toxic nerve agent known as VX. The attack occurred last week (13th February) in Kuala Lumpur airport, suspected to have been committed by two women who reportedly sprayed the chemical into his face before fleeing the scene.

VX, or S-[2-(Diisopropylamino)ethyl] methylphosphonothioate, is a nerve agent initially developed at the Porton Down Chemical Weapons Research Centre in Wiltshire, UK in 1952. Having originally been the focus of research elsewhere into the development of new organophosphate compounds as pesticides, the British military soon established an interest in the compound and continued its development.

vx-wiki

S-[2-(diisopropylamino)ethyl] methylphosphonothioate) or VX

Typically encountered in liquid form, this clear or sometimes amber-coloured, oily substance is notoriously difficult to detect, lacking in both taste and odour. Its toxicity makes it one of the deadliest chemical warfare agents, requiring as little as 10mg adsorbed through the skin to be fatal. Its deadliness is only further increased by the persistence of the agent, making it difficult to decontaminate people and areas tainted with the chemical.

Mechanism

The mechanism of action of VX is identical to many similar nerve agents. The compound can enter the body by a range of potential routes, including ingestion, inhalation or skin contact. Once inside the body, VX inhibits the function of acetylcholinesterase (AChE), an enzyme responsible for catalysing the breakdown of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is released over a synapse following an electric nerve impulse, ultimately resulting in a muscle contraction. However when VX binds to the active site of acetylcholinesterase, it renders the enzyme inactive, thus preventing it from breaking down the acetylcholine. As the nervous system is flooded with excess acetylcholine,  repeated muscle contractions occur, eventually resulting in asphyxiation due to constant contraction of the diaphragm muscle.

The effects of VX will typically occur immediately after exposure, beginning with coughing, shortness of breath and a tightness in the chest. A headache and blurred vision soon follows, along with symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pains. Given a sufficient dose, seizures will then occur as the drug attacks the nervous system, eventually resulting in a coma and asphyxiation.

If administered promptly, there are antidotes for VX. Atropine, typically administered by injection, is an anti-nerve agent that blocks the acetylcholine receptors, alleviating the symptoms brought on by the nerve agent. However it is worth noting that compounds such as atropine are toxic in their own right and, although they may save the person’s life by alleviating the effects of the nerve agent, they will still have an adverse effect on the patient. In addition to this, pralidoxime (or 2-PAM), can be administered to reactivate the enzyme, thus reversing the effects of VX. 2-PAM is a safer compound to use than atropine, but its effects are much slower.

Other Nerve Agents

VX is just one of many known toxic nerve agents. Nerve agents can typically be classed as either G-series or V-series. G-series agents were first synthesised by German scientists during World War II, and include tabun (GA), sarin (GB), soman (GD), and cyclosarin (GF). The first compound to be discovered, tabun, was accidentally synthesised by Dr Gebhardt Schraeder, who was investigating the development of organophosphate-based pesticides. The German army soon realised the potential use of such compounds, and went on to fund the development of other nerve agents such as sarin. The G-series chemicals are all clear, colourless liquids at room temperature, but are largely utilised as gases due to their high volatility.

The V-series nerve agents, which include VX, VE, VG, VM and VR, were developed a few years later, initially in the UK but some later in Russia. Unlike the G-series compounds, V-agents are very persistent and are not easily washed away or degraded, meaning they can remain on surfaces for long periods of time.

Fortunately the V-series nerve agents have generally not been exploited outside of military research, and the death of Kim Jong-nam may well be the first known use of the toxic agent in an assassination. However the G-series have received a great deal of malicious use and attention over the years, ranging from the Tokyo sarin subway attack in 1995 to its recent use in the Syrian civil war

VX, along with numerous other toxic nerve agents, were banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, rendering the manufacture, possession and use of such substances illegal.

 

References

BBC News. VX nerve agent: The chemical that may have killed Kim Jong-nam. [online] Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-39073558

University of Bristol Chemistry on the Screen. VX Nerve Gas. [online] Available: http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/webprojects2006/Macgee/Web%20Project/nerve_gas.htm