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The vestiges of chemical warfare

A gas attack in World War I, seen from an airplane. (Image: Public domain, originally in Collier's New Photographic History of the World's War (New York, 1918) and found on

The most chemically polluted place on Earth, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is Dzerzhinsk — a city located on the Oka River approximately 240 miles east of Moscow. It was the prime site in the Soviet Union for producing chemical weapons from 1941 to 1965.

The core chemicals manufactured there were mustard gas (yperite), lewisite, phosgene and prussic acid.

Mustard gas, also known as sulphur mustard, is a chemical agent that causes blistering of the skin as well as damage to the eyes and respiratory tract. When used in chemical warfare, it is a yellow-brown liquid that smells something like mustard or horseradish. It was used in World War I by Germany against British soldiers near Ypres, Belgium in 1917 — hence the name yperite. Ironically, a British chemist, Hans Thacher Clarke (1887-1972), helped Germany develop the agent.

In 1913, Clarke was working with German chemist Hermann Emil Fischer (1852-1919) in Berlin to improve on previous versions of mustard gas. When Clarke dropped a flask on his hand, he suffered severe burns which caused him to be hospitalized for two months. After Fischer reported this to the German Chemical Society, development of the agent for chemical warfare began, with large-scale production commencing in 1916.

Lewisite is a colorless, odorless arsenic-based blistering agent similar to mustard gas. It is named for Winford Lee Lewis (1878—1943), an American soldier and chemist, who is generally credited with inventing it. However, it was first synthesized in 1904 by Julius Nieuwland (1878-1936), a priest and professor of chemistry at the University of Notre Dame.

Production of lewisite began in the U.S. in 1918, though it was produced too late to be used in World War I. It was considered obsolete in the U.S. in the 1950s, but it continued to be manufactured in other countries. Because it has no medicinal or manufacturing value, its use was restricted to chemical warfare.

Phosgene was first synthesized in 1812 by British chemist John Davy (1790-1868) when he exposed carbon monoxide and chlorine to sunlight. It was used in making dyes, and today is used in pesticides and in the production of polycarbonates.

French chemists developed it into an agent of chemical warfare in 1915, and it was used during World War I, sometimes in a deadly combination with chlorine. Phosgene gas was difficult to detect, and those who were exposed often didn't show symptoms for hours.

Even though mustard gas was more notorious, phosgene actually accounted for more deaths: approximately 85% of the 100,000 who died from chemical weapons died from exposure to phosgene. Mustard gas and phosgene were used by the Central Powers, the U.S. and the Allies during World War I.

Though chemical weapon use was widespread in World War I, only a small percentage of exposures were fatal; the majority of exposures were not life-threatening, but very painful and debilitating. Those who recovered enough to return to combat would do so only after several weeks. Others were literally scarred for life from chemical burns, often accompanied by respiratory and vision ailments.

Prussic acid, or hydrogen cyanide, was initially isolated from the synthetic pigment Prussian blue (hence the name) in 1752 by French chemist Pierre-Joseph Macquer (1718-1784). Cyanide in fact is derived from the word cyan, meaning blue.

Unlike phosgene, hydrogen cyanide kills quickly. It was the key ingredient used in Zyklon B in the Nazi death camps during World War II. It was also used in pesticides, though this was eventually abandoned due to its high toxicity.

The Dzerzhinsk chemical plant ceased production in 1965, but much of the chemical waste was buried onsite. Although the primary plant was shut down, several other chemical plants currently operate in the city, producing hundreds of chemical products. 

A 2007 Blacksmith Institute study found that the life expectancy of a man in Dzerzhinsk is 42 years, 47 for women, and that the 2003 death rate exceeded the birth rate by 260%. The water in Dzerzhinsk is reported to be contaminated with dioxins and phenols at 17 million times the safe limit. The city's own environmental agency estimates that 300,000 tons of chemical waste was improperly disposed of between 1930 and 1998, and the Russian State Duma's Ecology Committee lists Dzerzhinsk as one of the top ten cities with disastrous ecological conditions.

Representative Image Caption
A gas attack in World War I, seen from an airplane. (Image: Public domain, originally in Collier's New Photographic History of the World's War (New York, 1918) and found on
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