Roughly one hundred years ago, one of the deadliest chemicals ever concocted was introduced to the global stage. This chemical creation was mustard gas. Known officially as sulfur mustard, mustard gas was created at the latter end of World War I. Often referred to as the chemists’ war, World War I proved to be a breeding ground for chemical weapons.
World War I
In July 1917, British soldiers garrisoned in Ypres, Belgium reported a glimmering cloud of vapor in the air. Not too soon after, cases of blisters and sores were reported. British personnel was also reportedly coughing up blood, and according to Cancer Research UK, approximately 10,000 casualties were reported in Ypres alone.
Although British soldiers were issued gas masks per military regulation, mustard gas proved to be deadly regardless of whether an individual was wearing a gas mask or not. Mustard gas can be effective in virtually all conditions. Individuals can be exposed to the chemical through skin and eye contact; additionally, mustard gas is equally deadly if breathed through the air.
Forms of Mustard Gas
As a chemical, mustard gas can appear in multiple forms. Mustard gas was mainly used as a vapor during World War I; however, it can also appear in the liquid form. For example, mustard gas can be mixed with water which can lead to poisoning of water supplies.
Sulfur gas has been described as having a peppery or mustard-like smell, but mustard gas can also be odorless in nature making exposure difficult to document.
In general, exposure to sulfur mustard is not fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mustard gas accounted for roughly 5 percent of deaths during the Great War. Symptoms of exposure to the chemical vary widely.
The largest factor in the severity of symptoms is the total exposure to the gas itself. Individual symptoms of a mustard gas depend on a person’s susceptibility. Symptoms may not occur until 24 hours have passed.
Short-Term and Long-Term Effects
The severity of the effects differs greatly between the short- and long-term. Redness and itching of the skin may occur in regard to short-term mustard gas effects. Eye irritation in the form of swelling and tearing are common. Within 12 to 24 hours the respiratory tract may be damaged, leading to a runny nose, shortness of breath, and coughing. Mustard gas impacts the digestive tract in the form of abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting.
Long-term mustard gas effects can include much graver consequences. If sulfur gas is not removed from the skin relatively quickly, second and third-degree burns may appear. Breathing-based exposure may lead to chronic respiratory disease or in some cases death. If not treated, sulfur gas has been documented to cause blindness. A person’s risk for lung and respiratory cancer also largely increases as a result.
Geneva Gas Protocol
Sulfur gas was officially banned in 1925 at the signing of the Geneva Gas Protocol. After the trauma and horror of the First World War, the global community largely agreed that chemical weapons must be prohibited from use in all cases.
Upon studying mustard gas effects, it becomes apparent that the Geneva Gas Protocol was essential in protecting human rights across the globe. With chemical weapons banned, the chances of continued use of the substances/liquids/gas has become much rarer. However, chemical weapons are still being used in war-torn areas across the globe today. It is the responsibility of the international community to ensure that all countries adhere to global treaties.
– Colby McCoy