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Chlorine Gas in Syria: How Deadly Is It?

A corrosive gas with a pungent smell, inhaling chlorine is painful and can do lasting damage.

Syria's government is turning chemical weapons against its own people with reports of chlorine gas attacks targeting civilians in Aleppo. The second such attack in the past month, the airstrike affected about 100 people, including about 40 children and 15 women, according to NPR.

This kind of chemical warfare in Syria has been going on for years. In 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported that it had evidence the Assad regime "systematically and repeatedly" used chlorine gas as a weapon of war against opposition fighters and innocents alike.

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Chlorine, one of the mostly commonly manufactured chemicals in the United States, is typically associated with its use in disinfecting pools or drinking water. It's also used in the manufacture of paper and cloth as well as to make pesticides, rubber and solvents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In its gas form, chlorine has a pungent, irritating odor almost like bleach as well as a yellow-green color. Because chlorine is about two and a half times denser than air, it can remain on the ground initially in areas with little air circulation.

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When mishandled or used in an attack, chlorine can be deadly. First employed as a weapon in World War I, its use in the battlefield is banned by international treaties. The corrosive properties of the gas mean the health effects experienced by anyone exposed to it are particularly brutal and can manifest within seconds.

Even at low levels, chlorine in the air can cause eye, skin and airway irritation. At higher doses, those who inhale chlorine gas or experience eye or skin contact may face chest tightness, blurred vision, wheezing, shortness of breath and painful skin blisters, among other symptoms. Changes in the pH balance of the blood can also damage organs. Severe doses can lead to a potentially deadly pulmonary edema several hours later, according to the CDC.

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On a cellular level, chlorine causes hydrogen to split from water from moist tissue, leading to the release of oxygen and hydrogen chloride, which causes tissue damage, as the New York Department of Health notes. Chlorine oxidation can also form hypochlorous acid, which can destroy cell structure.

Unfortunately there is no antidote for chlorine poisoning. Various treatments may include administration of oxygen, bronchodilators or other therapies to open up the airways.

Acute symptoms associated with mild or moderate exposure to chlorine gas will disappear after three to five days, but it takes months for lung function to return to normal, according to an article published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine. For some, chronic respiratory problems following exposure can be a long-term health concern.

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