Mustard gas (Salem Health: Cancer)
Related cancers: Cancers of the larynx, pharynx, upper respiratory tract, and lungs
Definition: Mustard gas is a member of the sulfur mustards, which are blister-inducing agents (vesicants). Mustard gas is actually a liquid at room temperature that is clear to yellow or brown in color and is either odorless or smells like garlic, onions, or mustard. Mustard gas was originally introduced as a chemical weapon during World War I and has been used throughout the world since then. It is a powerful irritant that damages the eyes and respiratory tract and causes large blisters on exposed skin.
Exposure routes: Inhalation and dermal contact
Where found: Used during chemical warfare attacks and in research laboratories.
At risk: Military personnel or civilians exposed to mustard gas during chemical warfare attacks, workers who manufacture it, and people who live near stockpiles of it or come into contact with unexploded ordnances loaded with it
Etiology and symptoms of associated cancers: Because mustard gas often has no odor, people are unaware that they have been exposed to it until the onset of symptoms, which usually begin two to twenty-four hours after exposure. Symptoms include redness, itching, yellow blistering of the skin, pain, swelling and tearing of the eyes, runny nose, sneezing, hoarseness, shortness of...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
Mustard gas (Forensic Science)
When two chlorine atoms, eight hydrogen atoms, four carbon atoms, and one sulfur atom are combined in the right manner and under the right conditions, they create the highly toxic compound known as mustard gas. Mustard gas is part of a class of chemicals known as organohalogens, which combine with carbon and other elements. Well-known organohalogens include the agricultural chemical DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), the war gas phosgene, and chlorofluorocarbons (or freons). The majority of both natural and synthetic organohalogens have little or no toxicity, but, as an expression among chemists notes, “the dose makes the poison.”
Mustard gas, also known as sulfur mustard, is the most common agent associated with chemical warfare. Although mustard gas has been used most often during wartime, it has become increasingly clear since 1995, when members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious movement perpetrated a sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway train, that the use of chemical weapons by terrorist organizations is a real possibility. The Web site of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes several pages providing information on mustard gas, including how to detect an attack and how to respond to one. Nerve agents are more modern types of chemical weapons, but vesicant agents are much easier to produce than nerve agents; terrorists are thus much more likely to use vesicant agents than nerve agents in chemical...
(The entire section is 228 words.)
History (Forensic Science)
Mustard gas was first deployed as a weapon by Germany in 1917, during World War I. Approximately one month after its introduction to the battlefield, British casualties from just mustard gas were almost equal to all previous casualties resulting from the use of other gas chemical agents that German forces had been employing for several years. The next use of mustard gas was by the Italians during their attempt to conquer present-day Ethiopia in 1935. Since that time, mustard gas has remained much the same, and it is a weapon that is fairly easy to manufacture.
Mustard gas was also purportedly used during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), which saw the extensive use of chemical weapons. Since the international Chemical Weapons Convention went into force in 1997, stockpiles of mustard gas have been in the process of being systematically destroyed, at least by those countries that are signatories to the convention, including the United States and Russia.
(The entire section is 153 words.)
How It Works (Forensic Science)
In a mustard gas attack, the agent is usually released through the air either by artillery shells or by bombs; the agent can also be deployed through water supplies. With strong winds, an air release of mustard gas can spread the agent over distances of several miles. In normal conditions, the gas will stay in the area for approximately two days, but in colder climates it can linger much longer.
When the gas is inhaled or ingested or comes into direct contact with the skin or eyes, it begins to cause irritation. The agent begins to attack the skin cells, causing severe irritation and damaging DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid); it quickly penetrates the skin and assaults the organs within the body and damages the respiratory tract. It also can damage eyesight if the eyes are exposed. The accompanying blistering of the skin can be very painful and creates a high potential for infection. If the exposed person survives the initial exposure, the agent will continue to attack the body’s immune system, which can cause difficulty in dealing with any associated infections from the exposure.
(The entire section is 184 words.)
Symptoms and Treatment (Forensic Science)
The effects of exposure to mustard gas are not normally recognized until a few hours after exposure. In the short term, exposure to the skin causes first red and itchy skin that rapidly changes to yellow blistering. In mild cases, eye exposure causes tearing, pain, irritation, and swelling. In high doses, mustard gas can cause temporary blindness, sensitivity to light, and severe pain in the eyes. If the mustard gas reaches the respiratory system, it can cause bleeding from the nose, sneezing, cough, sinus pain, shortness of breath, and possibly hoarseness. When it reaches the digestive tract it can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and fever. It can also cause second- and third-degree burns on the skin and permanent blindness.
No antidote exists to combat exposure to mustard gas. As a preventive measure, moving to higher ground is advisable during gas attacks because the gas is denser than air, and so it tends to settle in low-lying areas. Persons who have been exposed to the gas are normally hospitalized and given standard medical attention in an effort to reduce the effects of the agent. Any clothing they were wearing that has been exposed to mustard gas is removed, and their bodies are thoroughly rinsed with clean water. When victims’ eyes have been exposed, they need to be flushed for approximately seven minutes.
(The entire section is 223 words.)
Detection (Forensic Science)
Mustard gas exposure is usually detected after the fact, when suspicions are raised by the appearance at hospitals of persons with the symptoms described above. In the United States, when doctors suspect the presence of this chemical agent, they can send samples to the CDC to be analyzed against a database of chemical agents. Emergency first responders and law-enforcement agencies also have chemical monitoring equipment that can analyze the air for the presence or absence of specific chemical agents. These instruments use processes that vary from chromatography and spectrometry to photoionization and even the simple color-change method.
(The entire section is 97 words.)
Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Coleman, Kim. A History of Chemical Warfare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Details the use of chemical weapons from World War I onward and analyzes chemical warfare accords and why countries chose not to use chemical weapons. Also discusses the potential for chemical terrorism in the present age.
Cordesman, Anthony H. Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. Addresses a variety of potential threats to U.S. security, including chemical weapons. Provides information on vesicant agents and possible responses to chemical terrorist attacks.
Croddy, Eric A., with Clarisa Perez-Armendariz and John Hart. Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen. New York: Copernicus Books, 2002. Comprehensive study of chemical and biological weapons covers types of agents, potential for terrorists’ use of such agents, and possible responses to the problem of chemical weapons.
Hammond, James W. Poison Gas: The Myths Versus Reality. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Provides historical information on the original use of poison gas weapons and then discusses the cultural perceptions of chemical weapons and why those conceptions exist.
Taylor, C. L., and L. B. Taylor, Jr. Chemical and Biological Warfare. New York: Franklin Watts, 1992. Covers the...
(The entire section is 223 words.)
Mustard Gas (Magill’s Guide to Military History)
A type of poison gas first used in warfare during World War I (1914-1918). Mustard gas is a vesicant, or blistering agent, which is compounded from carbon, sulfur, hydrogen, and chlorine. It was introduced by Germany in 1917 and, in 1918, was extensively used by both sides. Thanks to gas masks and other protective gear, it inflicted relatively few fatalities. Although vesicants like mustard gas and lewisite, irritants like CS, and, beginning in the 1940’s, nerve agents have been stockpiled by many nations, chemical warfare has rarely been resorted to in the decades following World War I. Where such weapons have been used, it has usually been against poorly equipped forces that lack gas masks—as in Ethiopia (1935-1936) and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).
(The entire section is 122 words.)
Mustard Gas (World of Forensic Science)
Among the toxic agents that can injure or kill people are noxious gases. One example is mustard gas. Its use as an offensive chemical weapon makes mustard gas of particular relevance for military forensic scientists. Mustard gas is the popular name for the compound with the chemical designation 1,1-thiobis(2-chloroethane) (chemical formula: Cl-CH2-CH2-S-CH2-CH2-Cl). Mustard gas has also been called H, yprite, sulfur mustard and Kampstoff Lost.
The name mustard gas arose because the odor of the impure substance is similar to mustard, garlic, or horseradish. However, in the pure form, mustard gas is odorless and colorless.
The gas was used for the first time as an agent of chemical warfare during World War I, when it was distributed with devastating effect near Ypres in Flanders on July 12, 1917.
In 1860, Frederick Guthrie observed that when ethylene reacted with chlorine a substance was produced which, in small quantities, could produce toxic effects on the skin. Exposure to low concentrations of mustard gas classically causes the reddening and blistering of skin and epithelial tissue. On inhalation, the gas causes the lining of the lungs to blister and leads to chronic respiratory impairment. Higher concentrations of mustard gas will attack the corneas of the eyes and can cause blindness.
Exposure to mustard gas can lead to a slow and painful death and any moist area of the body is especially susceptible to its effects. The compound is only slightly soluble in water, but it undergoes a hydrolysis reaction, liberating highly corrosive hydrochloric acid and several other vesicant intermediates, which are able to blister epithelial surfaces.
Despite the ease of hydrolysis, mustard gas may be preserved underground in a solid form for up to ten years. The reason for this is that in an environment where the concentration of water is relatively low, the reaction pathway proceeds to form an intermediate known as thiodiglycol. In a low moisture environment, most of the water available at the solid surface is used in this reaction. Subsequently, another intermediate in the reaction pathway, a sulfonium ion, reacts with the thiodiglycol in the place of water. This reaction then creates stable, non-reactive sulfonium salts, which can act as a protective layer around the bulk of the solid mustard and prevent further degradation.
Mustard gas as a chemical weapon is a particularly deadly and debilitating poison and when it was first used in 1917, it could penetrate all the masks and protective materials that were available at that time. In more recent years, urethane was found to be resistant to mustard gas, and also has several other advantages for use in combat; urethane is tough, resistant to cuts, and is stable at a wide range of temperatures.
Detoxification procedures from mustard gas are difficult because of its insolubility and also because of the drastic effects it can have on lung epithelial tissue following inhalation. During World War I, physicians had no curative means of treating the victims of mustard gas exposure. The only method of detoxification that was known involved a rather extreme oxidation procedure using superchlorinated bleaches, such as 5% sodium hypochlorite. Today, several novel methods of detoxification have been developed to counter the effects of mustard gas and these include the use of sulfur-amine solutions and magnesium monoperoxyphthalate. The most effective method to date employs peroxy acids, because they are able to react quickly with the mustard gas. Furthermore, the addition of a catalyst can speed up the detoxification reaction even more effectively.
Although mustard gas has been shown to have long-term carcinogenic properties, it can also be used as an agent in the treatment of cancer. In 1919, it was observed that victims of mustard gas attack had a low white blood cell count and bone marrow aplasia (tissue growth failure). More detailed research in the years following 1946 showed that nitrogen mustards, which differ from traditional mustard gas by the substitution of a sulfur atom by a nitrogen, could reduce tumor growth in experimental mice by cross linking DNA strands. It had been shown previously that the sensitivity of mouse bone marrow to mustard gas was similar to that of humans and more detailed research eventually led to successful clinical trials. Today, nitrogen mustards are also part of the spectrum of substances used in modern anti-cancer chemotherapy. They are primarily used in the treatment of conditions such as Hodgkin's disease and cancers of the lymph glands.
SEE ALSO Chemical warfare; Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, United States; Nerve gas; Sarin gas; Tabun.