Chemical agents could pose a hazard for generations
Earlier this summer a crew member aboard a clamming vessel pulled up mysterious canisters from the ocean off the south shore of Long Island.
Turns out they were exposed to mustard gas, used during World War I as a chemical warfare agent. The 145-foot clam boat, based out of Atlantic City, N.J., and all crew members were safely moored and the crew decontaminated.
Additionally, 504,000 pounds (14,400 bushels) of clams the crew had unloaded, not knowing they had been contaminated, were sold in New Bedford. This required Massachusetts state officials to search for and isolated the catch.
The state officials safely disposed of the clams and the Coast Guard was tasked with decontaminating the boat, removing any detectable sulfur mustard contamination on the vessel.
“What is stunning to everyone is it is still so potent after all this time,” said Boyer, a medical toxicologist who studies mustard gas.
People exposed to mustard gas on their skin are often not aware of it until 24 hours later when enormous, raised blisters occur; that is exactly what happened to the crew member, Boyer said.
First used during World War I, mustard gas is a colorless, odorless liquid at room temperature and causes extreme blistering. The name stems from its color and smell in its impure state. It’s not related to the condiment mustard in any way. It’s commonly referred to as a gas because the military designed it for use as an aerosol.
Even slight exposure leads to deep, agonizing blisters that appear within four to 24 hours of contact. If it gets into the eyes, they swell shut, and blindness can result. If inhaled at high doses, the respiratory system bleeds internally, and death is likely.
Exposure to more than 50 percent of the body’s skin is usually fatal. It also causes cancer.
It was the most common type of chemical weapon dumped. It was dumped in 1-ton canisters and artillery shells for decades. Mustard agent is heavier than seawater, so it sinks and rolls around on the ocean floor with the prevailing current.
It lasts at least five years in seawater in a concentrated gel.