This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions (FAQs) about mustard gas.
For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects.
It is important you understand this information because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
HIGHLIGHTS: The general population is not exposed to mustard gas.
Mustard gas can cause irritation and burns of the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, reproductive effects, and may cause cancer of the respiratory tract.
This chemical has been found in at least 3 of the 1,585 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is mustard gas?
(Pronounced mus'terd gas)
Mustard gas refers to several manufactured chemicals, including sulfur mustard, that do not occur naturally in the environment 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 pure liquid, it is colorless and odorless, but when mixed with other chemicals, it looks brown and has a garlic-like smell.
Mustard gas has been used in chemical warfare and was made in large amounts during World Wars I and II. It was reportedly used in the Iran-Iraq war in 1980–1988. 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.
What happens to mustard gas when it enters the environment?
Mustard gas would primarily enter the environment through an accidental release.
In soil and water, some mustard gas evaporates into the air and the rest breaks down in minutes to days depending on environmental conditions.
Mustard gas reacts with chemicals in the air to form other compounds.
Mustard gas does not move from soil to groundwater, and it does not build up in the tissues of animals because it breaks down quickly.
How might I be exposed to mustard gas?
Mustard gas is no longer made in the United States and is only stored at a few military storage sites; therefore, the general public is not exposed to mustard gas.
Individuals working at or living near these military storage sites may be exposed to mustard gas if there was an accidental spill or unplanned release.
Occupational exposures are currently limited to soldiers in some combat situations; those involved in its shipment, storage, or disposal; and construction workers at storage sites.
How can mustard gas affect my health?
Mustard gas can cause skin burns and blisters, especially around sweaty parts of the body. It is more harmful to the skin on hot, humid days, or in tropical climates. Mustard gas makes your eyes burn, your eyelids swell, and causes you to blink a lot. If you breathe mustard gas, it can cause coughing, bronchitis, and long-term respiratory disease. Exposure to a large amount of mustard gas can cause death. Some men exposed to mustard gas during war have experienced lower sperm counts.
How likely is mustard gas to cause cancer?
Studies of people exposed during the production process or during war, as well as animal studies, have shown that mustard gas may cause respiratory cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that mustard gas is carcinogenic to humans.
How can mustard gas affect children?
Mustard gas causes the eyes and skin of children to burn similarly to adults; however, the burns are more severe and blisters appear sooner in children.
Limited human and animal data indicate that mustard gas may cause birth defects or otherwise affect development.
It is not known if mustard gas can cross the placenta or be passed to infants in breast milk.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to mustard gas?
The risk of exposure to mustard gas is generally low, but may be greater for those who live or work near Army bases and facilities that store it. Mustard gas is currently being destroyed at these facilities and the risk of exposure due to accidents is minimal.
Children should avoid playing near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites where mustard gas may have been discarded.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to mustard gas?
Mustard gas or its breakdown products can be detected in your blood and urine within a few weeks after your last exposure. These tests are not usually available at your doctors office, but your doctor can send the samples to a laboratory that can perform the tests. None of these tests, however, can predict whether you will experience any health effects.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has proposed a mustard gas 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) airborne exposure limit (AEL) of 0.003 milligrams per cubic meter of air (0.003 mg/m3) for agent workers, and a 72-hour TWA AEL of 0.0001 mg/m3 for the general population. A ceiling value indicating a maximum exposure concentration at any time, for any duration, of 0.003 mg/m3 has also been proposed.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2001. Toxicological profile for mustard gas. Draft for Public Comment. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop E-29
Atlanta, GA 30333