It’s the end of an era. Scientists are now prepping to dispose of 780,000 artillery and mortar shells of mustard gas at the Pueblo Chemical Depot next month. How and why was this stockpile built? Here are five facts about mustard gas and how chemists are going to destroy it.
Chemical warfare as we know it started in WWI. Though armies have poisoned each other for thousands of years, mass manufacturing of chemical agents to be used on battlefields gained steam in WWI. Armies on both sides looked for ways to overcome battlefield stalemates caused by troops dug into trenches, so they turned to several poisonous gases, including mustard gas.
Being the assistant to a chemist discovering these gases is not a fun job. Starting in 1822, several chemists began making discoveries that led to the development of mustard gas (including one chemist who pioneered the cocaine industry). Then in 1886, a chemist named Victor Meyer created a compound of the gas that had a higher potency than previous yields, leading to adverse symptoms developing in his assistant. To further confirm its dangerous effects, Meyer exposed lab rabbits to the gas, most of whom died.
Most of the time, it doesn’t kill you. Unlike some chemical nerve agents, like sarin, that instantly incapacitate victims, there is a fairly good chance you could walk away from exposure to mustard gas without dying — but within 12 to 24 hours, symptoms such as pus-filled blisters, irritation to the nose and eyes, temporary blindness, shortness of breath and other discomforts will likely set in. Though these symptoms clear up for many, some victims are left permanently disfigured or disabled.
The U.S. stockpiled its mustard gas in WWII and the Cold War. The U.S. amassed a stockpile of mustard gas, most of which has been stored in Colorado bunkers, to dissuade other countries from using similar weapons against America.
Chemists are using bio-neutralization to destroy the U.S.’s mustard gas. In a Colorado plant, the weapons will be bio-neutralized using robots. Machines will wash out the mustard agent, then bacteria will be used to further break down the chemicals, and what's left will be sent to a hazardous waste dump. Leaking shells or those that can't be opened will be sent into another chamber where they'll be blast apart with explosives. Pretty nifty.
Check out this Associated Press video on the destruction efforts to see more.