CNN: Sloppy Reporting on VX

CNN’s “Kim Jong Un ‘ordered’ half brother’s killing, South Korean intelligence says”

offers a shiny graphic about nerve agent VX, with gratuitously wrong-by-omission answers to these questions:

  • How can VX get into a human body? (water, food, sprayed)
  • The symptoms (blah, blah,blah.)

A  more accurate description is provided by CDC’s Facts About VX. Of these signs, CNN has chosen to display only the least alarming of the symptom set. Quoting CDC,

People exposed to a low or moderate dose of VX by inhalation, ingestion (swallowing), or skin absorption may experience some or all of the following symptoms within seconds to hours of exposure:

  • Abnormally low or high blood pressure
  • Blurred vision
  • Chest tightness
  • Confusion
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Drooling and excessive sweating
  • Drowsiness
  • Eye pain
  • Headache
  • Increased urination
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or abdominal pain
  • Rapid breathing
  • Runny nose
  • Slow or fast heart rate
  • Small, pinpoint pupils
  • Watery eyes
  • Weakness

CDC is not immune to criticism. A “large dose” is 1/100 of a gram, barely visible to the naked eye. The CNN graphic “drop” is highly misleading. CDC states that VX is the most toxic agent. It is not; Novichok-5 is the most toxic weaponized, and there are even more toxic ones without delivery systems.

Perhaps, in tone, CNN is simply patterning off of CDC, who state,

What the long-term health effects are

Mild or moderately exposed people usually recover completely. Severely exposed people are not likely to survive.

 Review of the U.S. Army’s Health Risk Assessments For Oral Exposure to Six Chemical-Warfare Agents does not contradict this, but it does not offer strong support either. The human evidence presented in another Army paper,  (pdf) LONG-TERM HEALTH EFFECTS OFNERVE AGENTS AND MUSTARD, is merely anecdotal.

The Dugway sheep incident occurred the day after a spray-by-airplane release of VX in Skull Valley, Utah. In the Deseret News article, NERVE GAS LIKELY CAUSED LIFELONG ILLS, Ray Peck recalls what he thinks VX exposure did to his family.

The Army has never concluded that the airborne release of VX caused the death of 3,843 sheep the following day, or the chronic health problems of Peck’s family. The argument about what VX can do in the real world is caught between a lack of fit between science and statistics on one side, and powerful coincidence on the other. But if Peck is not provably right, his experience invalidates the studies. Scientific studies that attempt to simulate real-world scenarios in controlled situations have a special vulnerability to error.

Where public health intersects with CBW hazards, there is a tendency to edit the material to calm the public. Where weapons and war are concerned, CNN favors presentations that increase the alarm level. See CNN, Shame! Raise Your Standards! “Russia unveils ‘Satan 2 Missile”.

These errors are decoupled from any political agenda. Sloppiness, the desire to hook the reader with  “yellow journalism“, and the occasional misplaced sense of paternalism towards the readership are the likely causes. But it denies the readership the chance to inform themselves as well as they are able.

CNN, what would it cost you, in readership, money, or principles to do the job right?


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