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Chemical Attacks
Throughout history, especially in modern warfare, one of the most common ways to kill a mass group of people is through chemical attacks. A chemical attack is any toxic chemical used in the form of a weapon, typically contained in a delivery system- bomb or shell.

Chemical Attacks in World War I

In 1915, three chemical attacks responsible for injuries and deaths during World War I were: chlorine gas, mustard gas and phosgene. They are described as follows:

  • Chlorine gas produces a greenish-yellow cloud containing the smell of bleach and immediately affects the eyes, nose, lungs and throat.
  • Mustard gas, known as the “King of the Battle Gases” holds a potent smell described as garlic, gasoline, rubber or dead horses. Although mustard gas does not have an instant effect, hours after being exposed, the victims’ eyes turn bloodshot red, start watering and become extremely painful. Some victims face temporary blindness and even skin blistering.
  • Phosgene is an irritant that is six times deadlier than chlorine gas. This gas is colorless and smells like moldy hay but doesn’t affect the body until a day or two after an attack. The effect of this chemical attack is a slow suffocating death.

On average, chemical weapon agents (CWA) are the outcome of industrial accidents, military stockpiling, wars and terrorist attacks. These hazardous substances come in a variety, such as nerve agents, vesicating or blistering agents, choking agents or lung toxicants, cyanides, incapacitating agents, lacrimation or riot control agents and vomiting agents.

The last mass usage of chemicals in military operation recorded was when Syrian military used sarin gas against civilians during the Syrian Civil War in 2013, killing hundreds.

Effects of Chemical Attacks

The effects of chemical attacks range from physical to clinical and can have short-term or long-term consequences. Victims can be exposed through the skin, eyes and respiratory tract. The liquid and high vapor concentrations affect the skin, causing rashes, burning and blistering. Liquid and vapor gases affect the eyes, which can lead to severe burning, irritation and blindness. Lastly, vapor inhalation affects the respiratory tract, resulting in choking to death.

All agents have a more intense effect when used in an enclosed area. “All I know is I had to get my helmet on the first time because it felt like death the minute I walked in there,” Kori Holmes told the Borgen Project in an interview while describing his training experience in military boot camp for the army.

In preparation for the army, soldiers have to be able to walk in the room clouded with gas and put our gas masks on without any assistance. Kori stated that the gas was so strong, his eyes started burning instantly and his throat felt like he had strep. He managed to finally get his gas mask on and escape.

Clinical effects of chemical attacks are contingent upon the amount of exposure, which also means the effects can be sudden or delayed. For example, inhalation of nerve agents (mustard gas) can kill victims immediately. The smallest amount of exposure on the skin to a nerve agent can be deadly, with delayed effects.

Treatment of Chemical Attacks Victims

In an attempt to medically manage the effects of chemical attacks, emergency workers wear protective equipment in order to decontaminate victims and provide antidotes. The first responders to chemical attacks are at risk of being chemically contaminated when coming in direct contact with vapor or handling the skin and clothing of victims.

Even with treatment, long-term effects of chemical attacks are primarily mental, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. Physically, permanent brain damage and other disorders of the nervous system can happen.

The effects of chemical attacks can be deadly and are certainly and represent a step back in building a modern society. As of today, the possession and use of chemical weapons are prohibited under international law, yet there are still nations that continue to have active chemical weapon programs.

The United States has five incinerators in operation, with hopes of keeping citizens safe along with maintaining public health and the environment as the top priority.

– Kayla Sellers
Photo: Flickr

Mustard Gas Effects
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
Photo: Flickr

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

Effects of Mustard Gas
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
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