There are many types of chemical-warfare agents Overview of Chemical-Warfare Agents Chemical weapons are developed by governments for wartime use and include Toxic agents (intended to cause serious injury or death) Incapacitating agents (intended to cause only temporary, non–life-threatening... read more that affect different parts of the body. "Anticholinergic" refers to drugs that block the effects of the chemical acetylcholine (see Anticholinergic: What Does It Mean? Anticholinergic: What Does It Mean? Drugs, the most common medical intervention, are an important part of medical care for older people. Without drugs, many older people would function less well or die at an earlier age. Older... read more ). Acetylcholine is a substance that some nerves use to signal to muscles and other nerves (a neurotransmitter). Thus, blocking the effects of acetylcholine blocks the activity of certain nerves. Although anticholinergic drugs are used to treat poisoning by nerve agents Nerve Chemical-Warfare Agents There are many types of chemical-warfare agents that affect different parts of the body. Nerve agents (sometimes incorrectly called "nerve gas") affect how nerves transmit signals to muscles... read more , anticholinergic drugs can themselves be used as incapacitating agents. Incapacitating agents are designed not to cause serious injury or death but rather to disorient military personnel and keep them from carrying out their missions. One such agent is called BZ (chemical warfare agents typically have a one- to three-letter code that is easier to use than their chemical name).
BZ is a solid that can persist in the environment for 3 to 4 weeks. Mass casualties would likely result from inhalation of aerosolized BZ, although the compound can also be dissolved and placed on a surface in the environment from which it can be absorbed through the skin.
People exposed to BZ have dry mouth and skin, dilated pupils (causing blurring of vision), and usually rapid heartbeat. Their body temperature may also become dangerously high (hyperthermia). They may become lethargic and then develop hallucinations in which they see or hear things. The hallucinations are typically concrete and easily describable (for example, voices of people they know, imaginary television programs, sharing of imaginary cigarettes, or odd shapes). Speech may be slurred, and people often pick at their skin or clothes. Stupor and coma may last hours to days, but people gradually recover.
People exposed to an anticholinergic agent such as BZ are usually quiet but may become disruptive and may need to be restrained. Doctors must cool people who have an elevated body temperature (see Heatstroke: Treatment Treatment Heatstroke is a life-threatening condition that results in very high body temperature and malfunction of many organ systems. (See also Overview of Heat Disorders.) Heatstroke can develop after... read more ). They give the drug physostigmine to people who are disruptive or who are markedly distressed by the hallucinations.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.