Remembering mustard gas

Last week, the U.S. Army announced that its excavation old chemical munitions dump - unfortunately located in one of Washington D.C.'s more elegant neighborhoods - had turned up remnants of two of the ugliest weapons developed in World War I.

By which I mean compounds used in the production of mustard gas and the arsenic-laced blistering agent Lewisite. In fact - this is my favorite part - the glassware used in Lewisite production started smoking as workers exposed it, halting the excavation for safety reasons.

The 1920s nickname for Lewisite, by the way, was "dew of death." But despite the gruesome reputation, it never achieved the wartime success - and horrifying destruction of young soldiers - as mustard gas. The latter was developed by German scientists - in violation of international treaties - after the Great War got underway in 1914.

The first use of the gas was in July 1917,  just four months after the United States had entered the war.  American soldiers had been in Europe barely a month before Germany had launched the warâs most spectacular poison gas attack, bombarding the battlefield at Ypres, Belgium with bright-yellow shells loaded with mustard gas. Germany produced more than 10,000 tons of the gas during the war.

Mustard gas derived from a thick, oily liquid, colored condiment yellow by the sulfur it contained.  Mixed with an explosive variety of other chemicals, the liquid â called sulfur mustard - fragmented into a brownish-yellow aerosol mist.  The mustard itself was the point, though; the concentrated sulfur it contained mixed with other ingredients to become a ferocious form of sulfuric acid.

Known technically as a vesicant, or blistering agent, it burned on contact, through material, through leather, through skin, raising a thick layer of oozing yellow blisters, searing the eyes into crusted blindness. If inhaled, mustard gas plastered bloody blisters across the lining of lungs, making breathing a rasping, painful misery. German military strategists considered it a disabling agent, rather than a killer. It was rarely instantly lethal (although scientists would later find it to be a potent carcinogen) but always excruciatingly painful.

The descriptions of the effects of poison gases, the letters sent home by soldiers and medical personnel, were filled with pure horror: âI wish people who talk about going on with this war whatever the cost could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning,â wrote one nurse, telling of teenage boys strapped down to their beds, fighting for breath, their voices burned away to a hoarse whisper, praying to die.

Germany experimented with other gases â releasing lethal greenish clouds of chlorine, as the French introduced phosgene, which combined chlorine and carbon monoxide. The Americans followed by developing Lewisite â a corrosive combination of chlorine and arsenic â thinking that this dew of death might scare the Germans into surrendering.

By the summer of 1918, the U.S. was also manufacturing mustard gas, âthe deadliest instrument of warfare yet devised,â as the New York newspapers called it.  The chief army chemist explained that it was the most useful of the gases â because unlike phosgene it didnât break down in sunlight, unlike Lewisite it was stable when wet. The Germans, it turned out, had first considered cyanide gas. But theyâd decided it dispersed too easily in air, making its effects mild compared to that of the heavier, oily droplets contained in mustard gas, which settled in a poisonous blanket over the trenches where soldiers had sought protection.

Do you wonder how deadly these gases were? All in all, more than a million soldiers were injured by the poison gases used in World War I. Almost ten percent of them - some 91,000 - died.  After the war, new treaties were signed banning the use of chemical weaponry in warfare and they have (with some regional exceptions) been honored.

So that most of us have forgotten mustard gas, forgotten just how wicked these materials can be. No one likes to find them smoking underground in city neighborhoods. But we can count such discoveries as a valuable reminder - that some chemical experiments should really be left, forever, in the past.

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Sulfur mustard gas is an example of a general toxicology principle familiar to all organic chemists: electrophilic molecules (compounds with localized positive charge) are poisons. Your body is full of nucleophilic molecules (compounds with localized negative charge) like DNA and enzymes that react with electrophilic molecules. Forming "foreign" chemical bonds to such essential molecules is a recipe for death and destruction.

The Wikipedia article of mustard gas gives some good information on this topic.

BTW, mustard *gas* is a misnomer. The stuff is a liquid with a fairly high boiling point. I presume that it was dispersed as a fine mist by the explosive shell, leading to rapid skin absorption and the resultant noxious effects on the unfortunate soldiers.

By Richard Blaine (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

What about Agent Orange? The US continued to use it even after it was well known what the health dangers were. They were, and are, hideous and many Vietnamese and vets suffer to this day with deformed bodies or cancer.

I remember learning in primary school (in Canada) about a German gas attack at the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April, 1915. On that occasion, the Germans used chlorine. The Canadian troops improvised a gas mask in the form of urine-soaked handkerchiefs. The ammonia and water in the urine protected them from the chlorine. Here's a blurb about it on a Canadian government site:…

What about the cost? How much did it cost to make the mustard gas? Is it illegal in modern warfare?

Mustard gas is cheap to make and has been outlawed for use in warfare since the 1920s, when treaties were drawn up to prevent the kind of uses seen in World War I.

April, 1915. On that occasion, the Germans used chlorine. The Canadian troops improvised a gas mask in the form of urine-soaked handkerchiefs. The ammonia and water in the urine protected them from the chlorine. Here's a blurb about it on a Canadian government

Really fascinating. I'll definitely do more research on that topic. Thanks so much.