Under pressure from relatives, doctors and diplomats, Russia’s health minister Yuri Shevchenko has finally identified the mystery gas used to end the Moscow hostage crisis, saying it?s based on a narcotic called fentanyl. It killed all but 2 of the 119 hostages who died, but Shevchenko says, “By themselves, these compounds cannot provoke a fatal outcome.” He says the mass deaths occurred because the hostages were physically weak after three days in captivity.

But U.S. medical historian Martin Furmanski says that’s not true. Opioids similar to fentanyl are used in tranquilizing darts for large animals, and the lethal dose is only six times greater than the dose needed to put them to sleep. If the hostages (and rebels) were exposed to enough gas to knock them out within one minute, the hostages who kept breathing it would have gotten a lethal dose within six minutes. The gas had to act quickly so the terrorists would not be able to put on their gas masks or set off their explosives. “It was probably inevitable that many hostages would die if the aerosol opiate concentration was high enough to cause rapid unconsciousness in the terrorists,” Furmanski says.

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