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Detection of Chemical Weapon Nerve Agents in Bone by Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry

NCJ Number
Journal of Analytical Toxicology Volume: 44 Issue: 4 Dated: 2020 Pages: 391-401
Date Published
11 pages

This article reports on the testing of the hypothesis that nerve agent metabolites interact with bone.


A recently proposed model for the incorporation of xenobiotics of forensic interest into the human skeleton suggests nerve agent metabolites may incorporate into bone at relatively elevated concentrations based on their unique chemical properties. In testing the hypothesis that nerve agent metabolites interact with bone, the current study developed methods for the extraction, isolation, and semi-quantitative detection of nerve agent metabolites (MPA, EMPA, IMPA, iBuMPA, CMPA and PMPA, corresponding to the nerve agents VX, Russian VX, sarin, cyclosarin and soman, respectively) from osseous tissue, using liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry with both quadrupole time-of-flight and triple quadrupole (QqQ) instruments. The optimized methods were validated on the QqQ instrument. Despite high ion suppression, the achieved limits of detection (5–20 pg/g for four analytes; 350 pg/g for the fifth analyte) were lower than many of those published for the same analytes in other biomatrices, including serum and urine. These methods were tested on the skeletal remains of minipigs exposed to the chemical weapon VX in vivo. The VX metabolite was detected in multiple minipig bone samples. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first-time in vivo nerve agent exposure has been detected from bone. Further, detected concentrations and diaphyseal-to-epiphyseal area count ratios reflect animal exposure history. Although the results are limited, they are promising, indicating that nerve agent metabolites may interact with bone as a pharmacokinetic compartment and can be extracted from bone postmortem. Additional studies, assessing the effects of different agents, exposure pathways and taphonomic variables, are needed; however, these results suggest the method may be used with human bone to detect use of chemical weapons from postmortem biomatrices even well after a suspected attack. More general implications for both nerve agent toxicology and skeletal toxicology are also discussed. (publisher abstract modified)

Date Published: January 1, 2020