Why mustard gas can cause cancer?

Why mustard gas can cause cancer?

Mustard gas, also known as sulfur mustard, is a chemical warfare agent that causes severe blistering and damage to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. It can lead to cancer due to its mutagenic and alkylating properties.

When mustard gas comes into contact with DNA, it alkylates the nitrogenous bases, specifically adding alkyl groups to adenine and guanine bases. This can cause cross-linking between DNA strands, disrupt DNA replication, and lead to mutations in critical genes that control cell growth and division.

Why mustard gas can cause cancer

Mutations in tumor suppressor genes and oncogenes can result in uncontrolled cell growth, leading to the development of cancer. Additionally, the formation of DNA adducts and cross-links can interfere with the repair mechanisms of the cell, causing further genetic damage and increasing the risk of cancer.

Furthermore, the inflammation and tissue damage caused by mustard gas can also contribute to the development of cancer. Chronic inflammation can promote the production of reactive oxygen species and increase the risk of DNA damage and mutations.

In summary, mustard gas can cause cancer due to its mutagenic and alkylating properties, which lead to DNA damage, mutations, and uncontrolled cell growth. The inflammation and tissue damage it causes can also contribute to the development of cancer.

Increased risk of lung cancer

According to the 15th Report on Carcinogens released by the National Toxicology Program of the United States, mustard gas is listed as a known human carcinogen. Multiple epidemiological studies have shown an increased risk of lung cancer or other respiratory cancers associated with exposure to mustard gas through military use or occupational contact. Individuals with long-term exposure to mustard gas, such as workers involved in its production, have a higher risk of developing respiratory system cancers.

For instance, a prospective study conducted from 1952 to 2005 on former workers at a poison gas factory on Okunoshima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, found that workers exposed to mustard gas (a total of 480 individuals) had a higher incidence of lung cancer compared to those who were not exposed. Mustard gas exposure altered the age scale for the development of lung cancer. Additionally, according to reports from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 1975 and 1987, mustard gas also caused cancer in experimental animals, such as inducing lung tumors in mice through inhalation or intravenous injection.


Exposure to mustard gas can occur through several pathways, primarily in situations involving its use as a chemical warfare agent or in accidental releases during its production or storage. The main routes of exposure are:

Exposure to mustard gas
  1. Inhalation: Breathing in air contaminated with mustard gas vapor or aerosolized particles is the most common route of exposure, particularly in military conflicts or during industrial accidents. Inhalation can lead to damage of the respiratory system and other organs.
  2. Skin Contact: Direct contact with liquid mustard gas or contaminated objects can lead to severe skin burns and injuries. This can happen during handling of the chemical or through contact with surfaces where mustard gas has been released.
  3. Eye Contact: Exposure through the eyes can occur if liquid mustard gas or aerosolized particles come into contact with the eyes, leading to irritation, inflammation, and potentially blindness.
  4. Ingestion: Although less common, ingestion of mustard gas can occur through the consumption of contaminated food, water, or by hand-to-mouth contact after touching a contaminated surface.

Mustard gas is a volatile liquid with a distinctive odor resembling garlic or horseradish, which can help in its detection. However, its potential for causing harm is significant, and exposure requires immediate decontamination and medical attention. Personal protective equipment, such as chemical suits, masks, and gloves, is essential for preventing exposure in high-risk environments.


Outside of its military applications, it has been used or considered for other purposes, although these have been limited due to its extreme toxicity and the availability of safer alternatives. Some of these uses include:

The use of mustard gas
  1. Insecticides and Pesticides: Before its harmful effects were fully understood, mustard gas was experimented with for use as an insecticide or pesticide. However, its use in this capacity is now highly restricted due to its toxicity and the risk it poses to human health and the environment.
  2. Riot Control: There have been instances where mustard gas has been proposed for use in riot control, but its use in this context is highly controversial and has been largely abandoned due to the potential for widespread injury and the indiscriminate nature of its effects.
  3. Chemical Synthesis: Mustard gas has been used in small quantities in laboratory settings for chemical synthesis, particularly in the production of compounds with sulfur mustard functional groups for research purposes. However, its use is strictly controlled and limited to specialized applications.
  4. Historical Chemical Weapons Research: During the development of chemical warfare agents, mustard gas was studied for its potential use in warfare. This research led to the discovery of its harmful effects and its classification as a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The use of mustard gas is heavily regulated, and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 bans the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, including mustard gas. As a result, any non-military applications of mustard gas are highly restricted and subject to strict oversight to prevent harm to humans and the environment.

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