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What is Mustard Gas?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Mustard gas is a chemical weapon that is classified as a vesicant, meaning that it causes blisters and lesions on the skin and in the respiratory tract. This chemical weapon was infamously used during World War I, and this undoubtedly contributed to the decision to ban the use of such weapons in war in the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Also known as sulfur mustard or H, it is among the list in the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which bans the production, use, sale, or stockpiling of such weapons.

Despite its name, this weapon is not a gas, but rather a very thick, volatile liquid. The plumes of it that wafted over the trenches of World War I were created by aerosolizing the liquid, typically by encasing it in fired projectiles. Once aerosolized, sulfur mustard can endure for several days in the water and soil it settles on.

Impure mustard gas smells a bit like mustard or onions, and it sometimes has a yellow appearance, which explains the common name. When purified, however, it is odorless and colorless, which can potentially be very dangerous, as symptoms of exposure typically take several hours to set in. When treatment is offered quickly, recovery is possible; after several hours of exposure, however, it can be difficult to reverse the effects of the chemical.

Exposure to mustard gas causes distinctive burns on the skin. Many victims of the gas in World War I were blinded or had severe vision damage as a result of their exposure, since the chemical is very hard on the mucus membranes. When inhaled, the resulting blister formation in the respiratory tract can lead to death, typically after hours of suffering. It is also known to be a mutugen and carcinogen, meaning that even after recovery, exposed victims could still experience health problems.

After suspected exposure to sulfur mustard, people should immediately discard the clothing they are wearing and bathe in clean water. There is no antidote, so washing it off the body as quickly as possible it vital to limit injury. After these basic first aid measures, prompt medical attention is necessary; at a hospital, medical professionals can help remove the chemical from the victim's system and treat the symptoms as they arise.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon165438 — On Apr 04, 2011

Wrong on one point. VX has the color and consistency of motor oil. Otherwise pretty good though.

By FrameMaker — On Nov 16, 2010

@ Alchemy- Don't be mistaken by the inclusion of VX gas in Hollywood action blockbusters; VX gas is very real. It is actually a light green oil, and it is way more potent than World War One mustard gas. VX is nerve gas, and it kills with exposure exceeding 10 milligrams.

In cases where VX has been aerosolized, it has an almost 100 percent kill rate. VX is so dangerous that it ranks up there with nuclear weapons. They are not designed or local warfare, only long-distance warfare. In fact, it was designed by the British in 1958, and they traded the technology with the United States in exchange for thermonuclear devices. Once the trade was complete, they destroyed all stockpiles and banned the production of VX for any reason. A VX missile launch would almost certainly result in a nuclear retaliation since it is so deadly.

VX is more toxic than Sarin or Tabun gas (the gas used in the Tokyo Subway attacks). It kills by cutting off the central nervous system, resulting in an agonizing death caused by uncontrollable nerve function. The substance is also such a strong adhesive that it is nearly impossible to remove from surfaces. There has never been a confirmed instance of use, but it is suspected that Saddam Hussein used VX against the Iranians and the Kurds. The one good thing is only the US, Russia, and France possess VX -- or is it.

By Comparables — On Nov 16, 2010

@ Alchemy- Mustard gas is nasty stuff, and all of the seven or so remaining US stockpiles are slated for disposal. Disposal is almost as dangerous as storing the substance and it can take years to completely dispose of a stockpile. When it is disposed of, precautions must be taken to ensure the safety of nearby residents. A disposal site in Maryland had to equip local schools with pressurized chambers in case the plant suffered an explosion and released the HD gas on the residents.

Even old unexploded shells from the First World War are dangerous. Clam Fisherman in New York pulled up an unexploded mustard gas shell earlier this year and suffered symptoms of mustard gas exposure. Imagine that, mustard gas from WWI. That's one hell of an occupational hazard if you ask me.

By Alchemy — On Nov 16, 2010

Mustard gas poisoning sounds horrendous. I know that there is an international ban on the use of mustard gas, but does the United States conform to this ban, or does it dodge this ban as it does the cluster bomb ban? One more question. Is VX gas the same as mustard gas? Someone told me it was a super mustard gas, but I remember seeing it in that movie the rock, and it sounds like science fiction to me.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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