Given the recent events in Syria, many questions have been raised regarding the nature of chemical weapons. One of the most infamous of these weapons is Sulfur Mustard, or mustard gas, as it is more commonly called. Its use as a weapon originated in World War I, and its history, including both short-term and long-term health effects, has been well documented since.
Mustard gas can best be described through the eyes of a first-hand witness. Harry L. Gilchrist, Medical Director of the Gas Service, U.S. Army Expeditionary Force during World War I, said of his soldiers’ exposure to the toxin that, “…in the course of an hour or so, there was marked inflammation of their eyes. They vomited, and there was erythema of the skin.(…) Later there was severe blistering of the skin.”
Despite these less than pleasant effects, mustard gas is not generally fatal. It can, however, cause mild to severe health complications depending on the length of exposure. Symptoms of mild exposure do not manifest immediately, and indeed may not be seen for up to 24 hours – while symptoms of a more prolonged or extreme exposure will be seen almost immediately. Any part of the body that the gas comes in contact with will be affected, including but not limited to, the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, digestive tract, and bone marrow.
In terms of short-term symptoms, limited exposure will cause both skin irritation and itching, while prolonged exposure can cause severe blistering (as noted by Gilchrist). Pain, swelling, and tearing of the eyes are all common, and temporary blindness lasting up to 10 days has also been recorded. Irritation of the respiratory tract can cause pain, shortness of breath, and a cough, among other symptoms, while exposure of the digestive tract can result in pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and diarrhea. Perhaps most seriously, exposure of the bone marrow to mustard gas can cause anemia and decreased blood cells, which can cause prolonged bleeding and makes the victim more susceptible to infection.
Effects of Mustard Gas
Long-term health implications of exposure to mustard gas parallel its short-term effects. Severe burns can lead to widespread scarring, and extensive second- and third- degree burns can lead to death. Blindness can become permanent if the eyes are exposed to too much of the gas, and respiratory problems may become chronic. Similarly, exposure to mustard gas may increase the likelihood of contracting cancers of the respiratory tract.
Although contact with mustard gas is not usually deadly, each of these symptoms can be exacerbated by a poor healthcare system, or lack of access to aid due to political unrest, economic situation, or any other number of possibilities. For the citizens of Syria this is an all too possible reality. The government is suspected of having stockpiles of mustard gas in addition to the nerve gases with which the recent attacks were allegedly committed. In the event that mustard gas should become dispersed, any symptom, no matter how seemingly minor, can become fatal if proper treatment is unavailable.
– Rebecca Beyer
Sources: The CDC , The Washington Post , National Center for Biotechnology Information