Chemical Warfare (cont.)
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Sulfur mustard has been used as a chemical weapon since World War I. Nitrogen mustard, a derivative of sulfur mustard, was one of the first chemotherapy agents but never has been used in warfare. These agents cause blistering of exposed surfaces. Both mustard agents rapidly penetrate cells and generate a highly toxic reaction that disrupts cell function and causes cell death. The chemical reaction is both temperature dependent and aided by the presence of water, which explains why warm, moist tissues are affected more severely. Actively reproducing cells, such as skin and blood cells, are most at risk.
Physical properties: Mustards are oily liquids with odors of mustard, onion, garlic, or horseradish. Highly soluble in oils, fats, and organic solvents, mustards quickly penetrate skin and most materials, including rubber and most textiles. Sulfur mustard is considered a persistent agent with low volatility at cool temperatures but becomes a major vapor hazard at high temperatures. Exposure to mustard vapor, not mustard liquid, is the primary medical concern. More than 80% of mustard casualties in World War I were caused by exposure to mustard vapor. Mustard vapor is 3 times more toxic than a similar concentration of cyanide gas; however, mustard liquid is also quite toxic. Skin exposure to as little as 1-1.5 teaspoons of liquid (7 g) is lethal to half of those exposed.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/5/2014
Jeffrey L Arnold, MD, FACEP
Suzanne White, MD
Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD
Raymond J Roberge, MD, MPH, FAAEM, FACMT
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