Vesicants – a WWI Weapon

Posted on Updated on

Fifth in a series on  for biochemical terrorism .  (2003)

The purpose of terror is not mass killing but mass panic and chaos.

At 3 a.m. on a summer Sunday, an 18-wheeler rolls down Highway 80 past Roseville, trailing a light orange mist that is almost invisible in the still warm night air. It moves on to Sacramento next to W-X streets, West Sacramento and Davis, where it is abandoned at Sycamore and Russell Streets. At the junction of Highways 5 and 80, a similar rented semi arrives from Stockton, turns right at P Street and continues on a circuitous route to Fair Oaks Boulevard and ends at Folsom.

Between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., tens of thousands have been exposed to a vaporized vesicant. They note only a garlic-like smell, but little else. During the next 2-24 hours they develop persistent respiratory and eye irritation, and burning of the skin. Alarmed, they find that many others have the same symptoms, and it is obvious that something is very wrong.

They have been exposed to mustard gas, used in WWI. Emergency Department phone lines and waiting rooms are overwhelmed; medical staff are exposed to the same substance, before finding that both immediate decon­tamination of the victim (preferably within minutes, with soap and water or dilute bleach), and protection of hospital staff from secondary exposure, are vital.

Adequate decontamination equipment and protective clothing are not readily available, let alone large amounts of bleach. Some major hospitals are in the exposed zones close to freeways, so their triage and decontamination procedures, preferably done outside, must be moved to an uncontaminated parking lot or school. Pool supply stores and markets are asked  to supply  bleach, but supplies run out quickly. And unless more impermeable gear and gas masks can be found, hospital staff must do the best they can with gloves, surgical masks, face shields and makeshift barriers.

The Health Department quickly finds the micro aerosolized vesicant to be simply sulfur mustard, of the type used in WW I, absorbed immediately but with multiple delayed effects. It becomes clear that the results of decontamination efforts have been minimal. Within 48 hours of expo­sure, symptoms appear, including: Respiratory failure, blisters re­quiring debridement and, later, bone marrow depression. While most hospital staff are not so affected as the original victims, skin lesions and bronchitis are very slow to resolve.

Nationally, hyper-coverage by the media fuels panic, as people desperately try to acquire gas masks and bleach, and flee to rural areas. Freeways are congested and accidents obstruct traffic. Conflicting views, and misinformation about the nature of vesicants abound, amid official calls for calm, and assurances that further similar attacks are unlikely.

Heavy truck traffic is suspended, commerce is nearly completely halted, and a state of  high  national emergency is declared. Heightened public alertness is called for despite the simultaneous  call for calm. Gradually, over the next six months, it becomes clear that morbidity and mortality resulting from the attack are quite low, and the nation moves toward a recovery; yet the desired goal of the terrorist action was achieved: the nation has been paralyzed  by fear for many weeks.


S                                               Sulfur Mustard


is a simple and widely available agent that could be used to create chaos, and panic, the principal goal of terrorism, by taking advantage of our infrastructure or technology; in this case, the freeway system  provided  easy access to densely populated areas in just the right weather conditions.

Mustard, used in WW I, and thereafter outlawed, was employed in the 1980s by Iraq against Iranian soldiers and on Iraqi Kurdish civilians. Among vesicants, it has the relative advantage of delayed effects and persistence; however, it is not effective in cold weather. A comparison with phosgene and lewisite can be downloaded from page 199 of the Textbook of Military Medicine, at

Local and State Health Departments are the prime source of local current information.                                                        May,  2000

But, to iterate, hoping to drive home the point, terror as a weapon, is only as successful as the panic, chaos, and fear it creates. If 2000 or even 5000 people are injured or killed by terrorists, we should try to keep perspective. Remember that more than 30 or 40,000 are killed every year by such things as auto accidents. Yet we keep driving, as we should. It is foolish to be enslaved or conquered  by fear alone.

Helpful informational sites include:



Public Health Emergency Response:

Terror Response:

Hazardous materials:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s