A to Z Challenge: U (poisons & stories of their use)

Mustard Gas

Fast Facts:
– Also known as sulphur mustard
– An organic compound: (ClCH2CH2)2S
– Mustard gas is a cytotoxin
– Used in chemical warfare
– Garlic scent and yellow-brown colour
– Fatal in less than 1% cases
– Causes burns, suffocation and cancer
– Precursor to development of chemotherapy

Thought to have been developed in 1822, mustard gas (sulphur mustard) is a cytotoxin which means it’s toxic at a cellular level. While called a gas, it is actually an oily liquid which is dispersed via aerosol. It’s active ingredient is actually chlorine. It has a slight yellow-brown tint and a garlic smell. Exposure can occur via inhalation, ingestion or if it comes into contact with a person’s skin or eyes. While fatal in less than 1% of cases, exposure can result in burns and blisters to skin, eyes and lungs (plus a lot of other horrible symptoms). This can lead to suffocation, however victims usually die from secondary infections cause by burns. Victims who survive the initial exposure can later die from cancer.

Victims don’t usually show symptoms of poisoning until an average of 12 to 24 hours later. It can take a number of weeks for symptoms to recover. However, due to the severity of the exposure, some victims remain permanently disfigured and/or blind, suffer chronic respiratory disease. Pregnant women have increased risk of having a baby with birth defects or cancer.

The United Nations adopted the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 which banned mustard gas (and other chemical agents), however mustard gas has continued to be used in conflicts since then.

Through all the horror this chemical produces, it was the trigger for the development of modern chemotherapy thanks to the discovery in WWII that navy personnel impacted to mustard gas had toxic changes in their bone marrow.

Wince WWI, mustard gas has continued to be used:

United Kingdom against the Red Army in 1919
Spain and France against the Rifian resistance in Morocco in 1921–27
Italy in Libya in 1930
The Soviet Union in Xinjiang, Republic of China, during the Soviet Invasion of Xinjiang against the 36th Division (National Revolutionary Army) in 1934, and also in the Xinjiang War (1937) in 1936–37
Italy against Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) from 1935 to 1940
The Japanese Empire against China in 1937–1945
The 2 December 1943 air raid on Bari destroyed an Allied stockpile of mustard gas on the SS John Harvey
Egypt against North Yemen in 1963–1967
Iraq against Kurds in the town of Halabja during the Halabja chemical attack
Iraq against Iranians in 1983–1988
Possibly in Sudan against insurgents in the civil war, in 1995 and 1997
In the Iraq War, abandoned stockpiles of mustard gas shells were destroyed in the open air, and were used against Coalition forces in roadside bombs
By ISIS forces against Kurdish forces in Iraq in August 2015
By ISIS against another rebel group in the town of Mare’ in 2015
According to Syrian State media, by ISIS against Syrian Army during the battle in Deir ez-Zor in 2016


During WWII a supply ship carrying an American load of mustard agent exploded exposing over 600 to the toxin. Of those, 83 died. After the war, the ocean near Port Elizabeth in South Africa was used as a dumping ground for stockpiled mustard agent, resulting in trawler crews sustaining burns.


20 comments on “A to Z Challenge: U (poisons & stories of their use)

  1. Giggling Fattie

    April 24, 2021 at 10:09 pm

    So horrible!

    • It is, but then it was the driver for the discovery of chemotherapy! So many to die to save others.

  2. What an informative post, thank you for sharing.

    Stopping in from A to Z.

  3. I didn’t know it was related to chemotherapy. Just goes to show once again that thin line between medicine and poison.
    Black and White: U for Ultima Thule

    • It is such a fine line. I guess that’s why so many of these poisons were originally used for therapeutic purposes until the number of deaths meant it was banned.

    • It is awful – worse if you see what those exposed go through while suffering *shudder*

  4. Shame someone would put so much effort into something when simple Cl gas would be at least as fatal. That can be witnessed by all of those who live near water treatment plants.

    One question though; what does it have to do with the letter U?

    • I may have cheated a little bit. I was very limited in making my A to Z list because I had to find poisons, so mUstard gas. I have a similar problem with my x, y and z posts (but at least there were toxins with those letters in their name).

  5. And it is still being used… I knew your theme was not exactly cheery, but it is steadily making me lose faith in humanity…

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Don’t give up on humanity. For every terrible story there is always a wonderful one. I usually post much more uplifting stories on my blog, so if you need to find some good in humanity, read this A Story to Warm the Coldest Heart. I guarantee you’ll find the good in us again.

  6. Hahaha, I had the same question as the reader with the funny name “Bug Farts”… Where does the letter U come in 😉
    Never mind.
    I have never heard of Mustard Gas and its effects, and I hope I will never encounter it!!

  7. Such nasty stuff. after reading this, its even nastier than I realized. That it was used in war… I hear you on the x through z posts. I struggled with q too. We must be creative.

    • There are some letters that are always more problematic then others. Usually if I’m doing a more generic topic I have no problems, but this year I am a little too narrow in my focus.

  8. My husband and I both had family members who were exposed to mustard gas in WWI. We never knew them because that was a ways back, but apparently they were never the same.

    Between sulphur and mustard, that’s three letter U, so I think you’re legit for this one, haha 🙂

    • I would totally understand how being exposed would change you forever. (and thank you on the ‘u’s, lol)

  9. Amazing how many poisons have therapeutic uses, such as digitalis. My mother takes digoxin. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of those soldiers in the trenches during WWI.

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