First used during World War I, mustard agent has been the most commonly produced chemical weapon. The United States, Germany, Russia and Iraq are all said to have produced mustard agent during the 20th century.
Mustard gas refers to several manufactured chemicals, including sulfur mustard, that do not occur naturally in the environment. Sulfur mustard can be a vapor, an oily-textured liquid, or a solid. Mustard gas is actually a liquid and is not likely to change into a gas immediately if it is released at ordinary temperatures. As a weapon is it spread by explosive force, which converts it to a vapor.
What It Looks Like
As a pure liquid, mustard gas is colorless and odorless, but when mixed with other chemicals, it looks brown and can smell like garlic, mustard or onions.
What It Does
Mustard, known as a blister agent, causes chemical burns at the cellular level. Contact with mustard causes painful, long-lasting blisters to form on the skin and the mucous membranes. The blister agent reacts with water in skin cells and in the lungs to literally tear apart cellular structures. It can cause severe eye and lung damage and can also cause blindness.
How Lethal Is It?
Exposure to sulfur mustard is usually not fatal. When sulfur mustard was used during World War I, it killed fewer than 5 percent of those people who were exposed and received medical care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Persons exposed to significant concentrations without protective equipment, however, are at great risk. Ten milligrams can kill one person. Moreover, mustard-related injuries are so painful and debilitating that several soldiers are required to take care of each casualty, thus reducing the military effectiveness of battlefield forces.
Symptoms of Exposure
Symptoms include itchy skin, irritation, swelling and watering of the eyes, runny nose, sneezing, sinus pain, shortness of breath and a burning sensation in the lungs. Symptoms can also include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Signs and symptoms of exposure typically do not occur immediately. Depending on the severity of the exposure, symptoms may not occur for 2 to 24 hours.
How You Can Protect Yourself
You can prevent exposure by using a gas mask. If exposed, the best course is to remove the agent from the exposed parts of the body as soon as possible with clean water. Quickly remove any clothing that has been exposed, seal that clothing in a plastic bag and seal that bag into another plastic bag. Eyes should be flushed with water for five to 10 minutes and protected with dark glasses or goggles.
How It Can Be Used
Mustard gas can be delivered via bombs, artillery shells and land mines. It can also be released into the air or in water.
Mustard gas has been used in chemical warfare and was made in large amounts during World Wars I and II. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein reportedly authorized the use of mustard agents during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988 against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians. It is not presently used in the United States, except for research purposes, and the U.S. Department of Defense must destroy all remaining stocks of mustard gas by 2004.