What is VX?
VX is a man-made chemical warfare agent classified as a "nerve agent." Nerve agents are among the most deadly and fast-acting of the chemical warfare agents. VX is the most powerful of all nerve agents.
VX is an amber-colored oily liquid. It is odorless and tasteless. Because VX evaporates very slowly, it can last in the environment for many days (or even months in cold weather). If VX is heated to very high temperatures, it can turn into vapor (gas). In its vapor form, VX is heavier than air and will settle in low-lying areas.
Where is VX found and how it is used?
VX is not found in nature. It is a man-made chemical used as a warfare agent.
How might people be exposed to VX?
VX is a chemical agent that can be used by terrorists. It can be sprayed in areas as a liquid or vapor. You are exposed to VX only if you come into contact with it. This can happen by touching contaminated surfaces or breathing contaminated air. If VX is released into food or water, people can be exposed by eating or drinking it. In addition, people can come into skin contact with contaminated water. Clothing soaked with VX can release vapor for about 30 minutes after exposure; this can lead to exposure of other people. Aside from terrorist attack, an accidental release from military storage or a laboratory could cause exposure.
How does VX hurt people?
Nerves control bodily functions and movements. Nerve agents can damage the normal functioning of the nervous system, resulting in uncontrolled movements and overstimulation of muscles and glands. If the muscles and glands tire out, this can eventually lead to paralysis or death.
The extent of injury from exposure to VX depends on the amount a person is exposed to, how long a person is exposed, and how a person comes in contact with it. Skin contact with liquid VX could be fatal, unless the VX is washed off immediately.
What are the signs and symptoms of VX exposure?
People may not know if they have been exposed to VX because it has no odor. Depending on whether people are exposed to the vapor or the liquid, signs and symptoms may take a few seconds up to 18 hours to appear.
The amount of VX a person is exposed to also influences how fast and what type of symptoms result. Even a tiny drop of nerve agent on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching where the chemical touched the skin. Exposure to a low or moderate amount of VX may cause some or all of the following:
- Eye symptoms
- Watery eyes
- Small, pinpoint pupils
- Eye pain
- Blurred vision
- Respiratory (breathing-related) symptoms
- Runny nose
- Chest tightness
- Rapid breathing
- Gastrointestinal (stomach-related) symptoms
- Increased urination
- Nausea, vomiting, and/or abdominal pain
- Nervous system symptoms
- Drooling and excessive sweating
- Circulatory (heart-related) symptoms
- Slow or fast heart rate
- Abnormally low or high blood pressure
Exposure to a large amount of VX by any route may result in these additional health effects:
- Loss of consciousness
- Convulsions (uncontrolled muscle spasms/seizures)
- Respiratory failure possibly leading to death.
Showing the signs and symptoms listed above does not necessarily mean that a person has been exposed to VX; these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions.
What are the long-term health effects of VX exposure?
Mild or moderately exposed people usually recover completely. Health problems generally do not last more than 1-2 weeks after the exposure. Severely exposed people are not likely to survive.
What should I do if I'm exposed to VX?
Reduce your exposure as soon as possible.
- Get fresh air as fast as you can. Immediately leave the area where the VX was released. If the VX is released indoors, get out of the building. If the VX is released in an open space, it will spread out rapidly; if it is released within an enclosed space, people should keep in mind that it is heavier than air and will settle in low-lying areas.
- Quickly remove any clothing that has liquid VX on it. If possible, any clothing that has to be pulled over the head should be cut off the body.
- Rinse the eyes. If eyes are burning or vision is blurred, rinse the eyes with clean water for 10-15 minutes.
- Wash the skin as soon as possible. If VX gets on to the skin, wash with large amounts of soap and water. Do not rub the skin forcefully to avoid pressing VX into the skin.
- If swallowed do NOT induce vomiting or drink any fluids.
- Dial 911. Explain what has happened and seek medical attention right away.
How is VX poisoning treated?
First and most importantly, victims should be removed from the exposure, decontaminated (clothing removed, eyes rinsed, and the body washed), and given medical treatment as soon as possible. VX poisoning is treated with antidotes and with supportive medical care. Antidotes are most useful if given as soon as possible after exposure.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to VX?
Yes. There are medical tests that can determine whether you have been exposed to VX. One such test measures the levels of a substance in the blood known as cholinesterase, which is needed for the proper functioning of the nervous system. Exposure to nerve agents may lower cholinesterase levels. Levels can stay low for months following an exposure. However, cholinesterase levels in the blood can be low for reasons other than VX exposure.
Are there any special risks to children?
Children exposed to nerve agents are likely to experience the same harmful effects as those experienced by exposed adults. Children are generally more vulnerable than adults to the effects of any harmful chemical. It is not known whether exposure to VX can cause developmental effects.
What are the effects of VX exposure on pets?
Pets exposed to VX are likely to experience similar toxic effects as those experienced by humans. If possible, remove the VX from your pet(s) with soap and water. Be sure to protect yourself from getting exposed by wearing gloves and protective clothing. Contact either a veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (1-888-426-4435).
Is there anything specific that New Yorkers can do to prepare for a possible chemical terrorism event?
Emergency management officials recommend an "all-hazards" approach to emergency preparedness, which means that one plan can be used for several kinds of emergencies. Creating a household disaster plan, assembling an emergency supply kit, and putting together a bag of supplies you can grab on the go (a "go-bag") will provide you with the tools you need for almost any emergency, including a chemical release. Please read at Preparing for a Public Health Emergency: A Guide from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for more information.
During any public health emergency, health officials will provide instructions through TV and radio on how best to protect yourself and your loved ones. Were a chemical release to occur in New York City, stay tuned to the news media. Do NOT immediately rush to hospital emergency rooms. You may not be in immediate danger, and hospitals have to treat those who need immediate care. Furthermore, many treatments will be provided in non-hospital settings (emergency clinics) that would be established in multiple locations throughout the five boroughs.
What if fears about terrorism are having a serious impact on my family and work life?
After the events of September 11th, 2001 it is reasonable for individuals to feel anxious about their personal safety. However, if anxiety stops you from doing things that you would normally do, it might be helpful to speak with a professional counselor. Your healthcare provider can make a referral, or you can get help by calling 1-800- LIFENET (1-800-543-3638); 1-877-AYUDESE (1-877-298-3373) for Spanish LIFENET; 1-877-990-8585 for Chinese LIFENET; or 311 and ask for LIFENET.
Last Updated: January 15, 2013