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Mustard Gas EffectsSulfur mustard gas is a potent chemical agent that people infamously used in World War I because of its devastating effect. Upwards of 120,000 people died from the effects of mustard gas during the first World War, leading the international community to ban the use of mustard gas in the Geneva Protocol. Despite being banned nearly 100 years ago, the threat of mustard gas remains in the 21st century, as evidenced by its use in Iraq by the Islamic State against American forces several years ago in 2016.

The Function of Mustard Gas

Mustard gas has a distinct smell, often described as a potent mixture of garlic, gasoline and rubber, making the presence of the vaporized gas extremely apparent. People can also release mustard gas into water, exposing unsuspecting people using water resources for drinking, cooking, cleaning and agriculture.

Under average weather conditions, mustard gas may last one to two days. Cold weather conditions allow the liquid form to linger for several months. Additionally, when released into the air as a vapor, mustard gas can travel by wind for miles.

Symptoms from Mustard Gas Exposure

Once released, the effects of mustard gas are not immediate and symptom onset may take anywhere from hours to days. Within three to 12 hours of mild to moderate exposure, the victim’s eyes become bloodshot and watery. Severe exposure causes the same symptoms to onset within one to two hours, but may also cause sensitivity to light, and blindness for up to 10 days. Substantial exposure may lead to permanent blindness in the victim.

Additional symptoms include the skin becoming red and irritated, eventually leading to shallow blisters. Acute severity is generally in moist areas, including under the armpits and palms. Making matters worse, blisters commonly become infected after popping. Severe skin burning may prove fatal due to the infection. The mustard liquid is more likely to produce second-and-third degree burns and scarring when compared to exposure through vaporized mustard gas.

Further, the victim will develop a cough 12 to 24 hours after a mild exposure, and within two to four hours of severe exposure. Additionally, the victim may experience a runny nose, shortness of breath, sneezing, hoarseness, sinus pain, and a bloody nose. Exposure to mustard gas may lead to an increased risk of lung and respiratory cancer.

Finally, mustard gas can affect the digestive tract as well. The victim will often experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, fever and vomiting. Mustard gas also decreases the formation of red and white blood cells, leading to weakness, bleeding and an increased risk of fatal infection. Many scientists have studied the effects of mustard gas on victims after the first World War; one of which determines one of the greatest ailments these victims face is the psychosocial disorders developed.

Treatment for Mustard Gas Symptoms

Unfortunately, there is no antidote for mustard gas exposure, only symptom treatments. If exposed to mustard gas, the CDC recommends to immediately depart the area. Mustard gas is heavier than air, causing accumulation in low-lying areas. Therefore, it is imperative to reach higher ground immediately.

Additionally, recommendations state to remove any clothing with liquid mustard gas and transfer to a sealable bag, if possible. One should also promptly and thoroughly wash any body parts that became exposed to sulfur mustard, rinsing eyes every five to 10 minutes. Most importantly, those who experienced mustard gas exposure should immediately receive medical attention. If one receives proper medical treatment, exposure to mustard gas is not fatal.

Prohibited Use of Mustard Gas

The Chemical Weapons Convention treaty started to receive signatures on January 13, 1993; this a United Nations arms control prohibiting the production, acquisition, transfer and stockpiling of chemical weapons. The Convention, comprising 165 signatories, declares that states must destroy any chemical weapons stockpiles, as well as the facilities that produced them. The Convention includes a “challenge inspection” clause, which allows signatories to request a surprise, involuntary inspection on states suspected of noncompliance. Due to the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as the Geneva Protocol, the use of sulfur mustard in warfare has become uncommon.

Angus Gracey
Photo: Wikimedia

Mustard Gas
The Islamic State has been using chemical weapons including the poison known as mustard gas on Iraqi and coalition forces, as well as on civilian targets. Human Rights Watch has called on the Iraqi government to respond by warning civilians in conflict zones about the use of chemical agents, isolating contaminated areas and providing treatment for victims of chemical weapon attacks. If the Iraqi government cannot do this, it should seek assistance from other Chemical Weapons Convention member countries.

According to the Pentagon, mustard gas has been stockpiled and used by the Islamic State in the past, and as the battle for Mosul continues, U.S. forces say that they expect to see it used again. The head of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program has confirmed that the Islamic State has been stockpiling these weapons with the intention of using them in the battle for Mosul. In recent weeks, there have been several reports of chemical attacks in the areas surrounding Mosul.

Mustard gas was first and most famously used as a chemical warfare agent during World War I, and it has been used as a method of psychological warfare as well. Although exposure to mustard gas is rarely fatal, the chemical remains infamous for its invisibility, odorlessness and lack of immediate symptoms.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the effects of mustard gas depend on how much people are exposed to, the length of their exposure and the method of exposure. Exposure can occur through contact with the skin or eyes or by drinking contaminated water or eating the gas in liquid form.

Once exposed, it can take up to 24 hours for symptoms to appear. These symptoms usually include redness and itching of the skin, irritation of the eyes, respiratory tract problems such as shortness of breath, sneezing, a bloody nose, abdominal pain, fever, anemia and bone weakness.

The long-term effects of mustard gas can include second- and third-degree burns, chronic respiratory disease, blindness and cancer. Due to the severity of these symptoms, the use of mustard gas by the Islamic State is extremely concerning.

The World Post reported the story of a 4-year-old girl who was killed by mustard gas deployed by the Islamic State in Taza, Iraq. Her mother was standing beside her when she was killed and suffered severe burns from the gas.

Human Rights Watch has documented several other chemical weapon attacks in late September and early October. These attacks constitute war crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. For the safety of civilians and soldiers in Iraq, it is imperative that the government follow the guidelines set by Human Rights Watch and prevent chemical attacks by the Islamic State.

Eva Kennedy

Photo: Flickr

Chemical Agents Human Impact Blood
“Moral obscenity” and “heinous weapons” are just two terms U.S. political leaders have recently used to describe chemical weapons. Indeed, these weapons are known for their devastating effects on the human body, as they injure, disable and ultimately kill their victims by wreaking havoc on physiological processes.

According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the agents are separated into four categories based on how they attack the human system. The categories are blood, choking, blister, and nerve agents.

Blood agents prevent human blood and tissue cells from taking in oxygen, which causes rapid organ failure. They include cyanogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide and arsine. Choking agents are absorbed through the lungs, then causing fluid build-up which leads to the person choking to death. They include chlorine, choropicrin, diphosgene and phosgene.

Blister agents burn through the mucous membranes, such as the skin and eyes, causing boils and blisters on exposed skin. As a vapor, blister agents can burn the esophagus and lungs with such force that it causes death. They include nitrogen mustard, sulfur mustard and lewisite.

The most deadly of chemical weapons are nerve agents, which cause muscle paralysis and seizures. Even a small drop of a nerve agent can cause loss of body control, causing sudden death. These chemical nerve agents include sarin, tabun, soman and V/X.

Deadly in a number of terrible ways, chemical weapons have been subject of controversy since their inception. However, this hasn’t stopped warring factions from using them on their fellow man. In World War I, both sides used these weapons, which caused significant battle casualties, with the United Nations estimating almost 100,000 deaths as a result of their use.

Chemical weapon use outraged the public so much that, in 1925, the Geneva Protocol was enacted, which prohibited the use of chemical weapons in warfare. Despite this measure to reduce the use of chemical weapons, the Geneva Protocol did not outlaw the development, manufacture or stockpiling of such weapons.

World War II also saw the use of poison gases; Nazi concentration camps used them on prisoners. Chemical weapons were also used in the Pacific Ocean theatre of war by the Japanese in Manchuria during WWII; however, they were not used on the European battlefields.

Production and stockpiling of chemical weapons continued into the Cold War, and they were subsequently used in the 1960s by Egypt in Yemen, and in the 1980s by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqi government also used chemical weapons against peoples in northern territory of Kurdistan.

Throughout history chemical weapons have come with a high price—the UN estimates that more than a million have died as victims of chemical weapons since World War I. In September of 1992, after 12 years of negotiations, the Chemical Weapons Convention was adopted, which was the first disarmament agreement with a multilateral base.

About 98 percent of the global population has joined the CWC, representing 189 nations. To enforce the Convention, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was formed with the mission to provide a credible organization to confirm the destruction of chemical weapons and prevent their re-emergence in member States.

They also provide protection and assistance to combat chemical weapons and promote the global community to cooperate through peaceful use of chemistry.

That last sentiment is one the world may well agree on, and current reports of chemical weapon use in Syria have brought the discussion of chemical weapons once again to the world stage. The global community’s response to the use of these weapons could usher in a renewed effort to reduce the proliferation and use of chemical agents.

– Georganne Hassell
Sources: United Nations, The Atlantic, Disabled World, The World Outline
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