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View Diary: History of Chemical/Biological Arms Race: Chapter One (37 comments)

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  •  Mostly excellent, but a couple of additions (6+ / 0-)

    & quibbles, mostly having to do with mustard "gas". (NB I picked up a lot of ancillary information while working in chem-bio defense as a numbers-cruncher for over a dozen years.)

    First, sulfur mustards in purified form may be "nearly odorless and virtually undetectable," but as Wikipedia points out,

    When used in impure form, such as warfare agents, they are usually yellow-brown in color and have an odor resembling mustard plants, garlic, or horseradish, hence the name.
    Second, to call sulfur mustard "the deadliest of all the gases used in the war" misses the point. I'm having trouble digging up inhalation LD50s for mustard & phosgene, but even conceding the point, relative lethality was not a key feature. (The Pershing quote you've included notes that only 5% of the casualties died.) What is key is that the mustards (for there are several, nitrogen- as well as sulfur-based) are vesicants --i.e., blistering agents--and that they are persistent.

    Phosgene or chlorine work via inhalation; a gas mask worn for the few minutes (rarely more than half an hour) until the cloud dissipates is an effective countermeasure. Mustard (which BTW is liquid at room temperature) attacks skin as well, causing blisters which frequently incapacitate & in large enough doses can kill. Protection against mustard thus requires covering the whole body with fabric impervious to the stuff in liquid droplet or vapor form.

    Persistence means it does not decompose very fast. Wherever mustard has been released, it tends to fall to earth & stick around for a long time, on porous surfaces, leaves, trees, roads, dirt, you name it. (I read an account of a Belgian farmer clearing a chunk of forest that had been doused with mustard 50 years earlier sitting down for lunch on a tree stump & getting his butt burned by mustard trapped in the tree rings!) Any troops moving through such an area will kick the stuff up or take it onto exposed areas, so that full-body protection is needed for the traverse. The protective gear is ungainly and exhausting to wear, particularly in hot weather. In fact mustard was often used for "area denial"--to deter the enemy from moving through an area by saturating it with mustard even if there were no troops there at the time of attack.

    (NB The VX nerve agent developed by the US after WW2 is also persistent, also usable for area denial--& one helluva lot more deadly; a few drops on the skin can kill.)

    Back to mustard: The one major chemical incident in the European theatre of WW2 occurred when the Luftwaffe attacked Allied ships in the Italian port of Bari Italy--among many ships sunk was one carrying mustard agent (for purposes of retaliation in kind just in case). The stuff mixed with oil from the sunken ships & coated sailors cast into the harbor--& the only two people who knew what that ship carried were both killed in the attack. You could look it up.


    by Uncle Cosmo on Fri Sep 06, 2013 at 01:17:07 PM PDT

    •  re: "odorless"--point taken. re: other stuff (6+ / 0-)

      That's all covered in the "Introduction" to the book, which was diaried here:

      Yes, I know about the Italian mustard incident. I also know that Churchill wanted to drop chemical bombs on Germany. I didn't want to get that detailed, since this chapter is already mofo long.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.


      •  I must have missed that link first time through (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        cotterperson, Kysen

        & will go off to have a look when I get the chance.


        by Uncle Cosmo on Fri Sep 06, 2013 at 06:19:30 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  IIRC Churchill threatened worse than that-- (0+ / 0-)

        he had resolved to answer any Nazi use of chemical weapons with release of anthrax over the Reich.

        Anthrax spores were so persistent in the soil of Gruinard Island where Porton Down tested the stuff in the 1940s that the area was only declared safe after a massive decontamination effort in the late 1980s. Hard to dispute the conclusion of scientists after the tests that "a large release of anthrax spores would thoroughly pollute German cities, rendering them uninhabitable for decades afterwards." The mind reels...


        by Uncle Cosmo on Sun Sep 08, 2013 at 06:13:23 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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