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Facts About Tabun

What tabun is

  • Tabun is a man-made chemical warfare agent classified as a nerve agent. Nerve agents are the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents. They are similar to insecticides (insect killing chemicals) called organophosphates in the way they work and the harmful effects they cause. However, nerve agents are much more potent than organophosphate insecticides.
  • Tabun was developed as a pesticide in Germany in 1936.
  • Tabun is also known as “GA.”
  • Tabun is a clear or colorless-to-brown liquid (depending on purity). It is tasteless and has a faint fruity odor. Tabun can become a vapor if heated.

Where tabun is found and how it is used

  • It is possible that tabun and/or other nerve agents were used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
  • Tabun is not found naturally in the environment.

How people can be exposed to tabun

  • Following release of tabun into the air, people can be exposed through skin contact, eye contact, or breathing in the tabun (inhalation).
  • Tabun mixes easily with water; so it could be used to poison water. Following release of tabun into water, people can be exposed by drinking contaminated water or getting contaminated water on their skin.
  • Following contamination of food with tabun, people can be exposed by eating the contaminated food.
  • A person’s clothing can release tabun after contact with tabun vapor, which can lead to exposure of other people.
  • Tabun breaks down slowly in the body, meaning that repeated exposures to tabun and/or other nerve agents can build up in the body (have a cumulative effect).
  • Because tabun vapor is heavier than air, it will sink to low-lying areas and create a greater exposure hazard there.

How tabun works

  • The extent of poisoning caused by tabun depends on the amount and form (e.g., vapor or liquid) of tabun to which a person was exposed, how the person was exposed (e.g., skin contact, breathing in vapors, etc…), and the length of time of the exposure.
  • Symptoms likely will appear within a few seconds after exposure to the vapor form of tabun, and within a few minutes to hours after exposure to the liquid form.
  • All nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of an enzyme that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are being stimulated constantly. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.
  • Compared with other nerve agents, tabun is more volatile than VX (another nerve agent) but less volatile than sarin. The higher a chemical’s volatility, the more likely it will evaporate from a liquid into a vapor and disperse into the environment. People can be exposed to the vapor even if they do not come in contact with the liquid form.
  • Because of its high volatility, tabun is an immediate health threat.
  • Because tabun is more volatile than VX, it can remain on exposed surfaces for a shorter period of time compared with VX.
  • Because tabun is less volatile than sarin, it will remain on exposed surfaces for a longer period of time compared with sarin.

Immediate signs and symptoms of tabun exposure

  • Although tabun has a faint fruity odor, the odor may not be noticeable enough to give people enough warning that it is near them.
  • People exposed to a low or moderate dose of tabun by inhalation, ingestion (swallowing), or skin absorption may experience some or all of the following symptoms within seconds to hours of exposure:
    • 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
  • Even a small drop of some nerve agents such as tabun on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching where the agent touched the skin.
  • Exposure to a large dose of tabun by any route may result in these additional health effects:
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Convulsions (seizures)
    • Paralysis
    • Respiratory failure possibly leading to death
  • Showing these signs and symptoms does not necessarily mean that a person has been exposed to tabun.

Long-term health effects

Mildly exposed people usually recover completely. Severely exposed people are less likely to survive.

How people can protect themselves, and what they should do if they are exposed to tabun

  • Recovery from tabun exposure is possible with treatment, but the antidotes available must be used quickly to be effective. Therefore, the best thing to do is avoid exposure:
    • Leave the area where the tabun was released and get to fresh air. Quickly moving to an area where fresh air is available is highly effective in reducing the possibility of death from exposure to tabun vapor.
      • If the tabun release was outdoors, move away from the area where the tabun was released. Go to the highest ground possible, because tabun is heavier than air and will sink to low-lying areas.
      • If the tabun release was indoors, get out of the building.
  • If people think they may have been exposed, they should remove their clothing, rapidly wash the entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.
    • Removing and disposing of clothing:
      • Quickly take off clothing that has liquid tabun on it. Any clothing that has to be pulled over the head should be cut off the body instead of pulled over the head. If possible, seal the clothing in a plastic bag. Then seal the first plastic bag in a second plastic bag. Removing and sealing the clothing in this way will help protect people from any chemicals that might be on their clothes.
      • If clothes were placed in plastic bags, inform either the local or state health department or emergency personnel upon their arrival. Do not handle the plastic bags.
      • If helping other people remove their clothing, try to avoid touching any contaminated areas, and remove the clothing as quickly as possible.
    • Washing the body:
      • As quickly as possible, wash any liquid tabun from the skin with large amounts of soap and water. Washing with soap and water will help protect people from any chemicals on their bodies.
      • Rinse the eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes if they are burning or if vision is blurred.
  • If tabun has been ingested (swallowed), do not induce vomiting or give fluids to drink.
  • Seek medical attention right away. Consider dialing 911 and explain what has happened.

How tabun exposure is treated

Treatment consists of removing tabun from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital. Antidotes are available for tabun. They are most useful if given as soon as possible after exposure.

How people can get more information about tabun

People can contact one of the following:

  • Regional poison control center: 1-800-222-1222
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    • Public Response Hotline (CDC)
      • 800-CDC-INFO
      • 888-232-6348 (TTY)
  • E-mail inquiries: cdcinfo@cdc.gov
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