Recent days saw the Hadar Mall in Jerusalem packed to the gills with Israeli civilians waiting to receive gas masks from the IDF’s Home Front Command. But no lines and no gas masks greeted this reporter Wednesday afternoon, only a sign directing Jerusalem residents to call 104, the Home Front Command’s 24-hour hotline.
The number was unavailable most of the day. For the lucky callers who got through, waiting times topped 40 minutes. Only late in the evening did I manage to get through to someone, who informed me that the Jerusalem distribution point was temporarily closed because it “was a balagan,” a Hebrew term for the kind of chaos that ensues when much of the country appears to be rushing at the same time to get some protection from potential Syrian missile strikes.
In May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a $350 million initiative to equip every Israeli with a gas mask, but as of this week there were only enough to service 60% of the population, Labor MK Nahman Shai said, trumpeting his pet cause. Israeli officials said the shortfall was a “question of budget.”
That same budgetary issue may be responsible for cutbacks on a crucial item that is missing from the kits being distributed: injectors with the antidote to sarin and other nerve gas poisoning.
The particulars surrounding Syria’s notorious chemical weapons stockpile are vague. In a hearing before a US Senate subcommittee in 2001, biological and chemical weapons expert Dr. Jonathan B. Tucker posited that ”Syria is believed capable of producing and delivering sarin and VX nerve agent, as well as mustard agent.” Both VX and sarin are treated with atropine, but mustard gases, according to the CDC, have no known treatment.
Until 2010, the gas mask kits distributed by the IDF contained a small auto-injecting syringe containing atropine sulfate, which the US Center for Disease Control recommends as one of the best ways to treat sarin gas toxicity. (If you ever saw the 1996 film “The Rock,” atropine makes a couple of cameos as the standard antidote to sarin and VX — delivered by a gigantic syringe to the heart.)
Sarin gas, the CDC notes, “can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, or eye contact,” meaning a gas mask provides only partial protection against the deadly agent. And atropine alone provides limited treatment for nerve gas symptoms. The CDC recommends a Mark I nerve agent antidote kit containing both atropine sulfate and pralidoxime chloride, which together provide the necessary dosage to counteract sarin or VX’s deadly effects.
Smithsonian.com wrote on Wednesday that atropine “is really the only treatment doctors in Syria have” during nerve gas attacks.
But the atropine has run out in hospitals in Syria as doctors attempt to treat victims of last Wednesday’s reported sarin gas attack. In Israel, the drug is not being distributed to civilians.
The Home Front Command ceased distribution of atropine injectors in 2010. Its website provides no reason for the decision. A Home Front Command call center employee said the reason they ceased distributing the injectors was because “the medicine was not effective.”
When asked for comment, an IDF spokesman had the following to say: “In light of the recent occurrences in the region, the IDF is taking the necessary defensive measures to protect the State of Israel. These include active and passive mechanisms.”
“There has been no change in the Home Front Command’s instructions to civilians,” the spokesperson added, despite growing public consternation over potential Syrian retaliation against Israel for any US strike.
Despite repeated attempts, officials at the Home Front Defense Ministry could not be reached for comment on the matter.