Friday, February 8, 2013

Deadly Toxin: Mustard Gas

To celebrate Poison's release, I'm giving away THREE personalized copies of Poison by random drawing to commentors on this week's posts. To be eligible, you must leave a comment that includes your e-mail address. Must also live in the USA. Drawing will take place midnight on Saturday, February 9th. Winner announced here at Redwood's February 10th.

I like book titles with double meanings. My first published book was titled, Proof. There were two types of proof the heroine needed. Proof to convict her assailant of his horrific crimes and proof of God in her life.

Poison, the second book in the Bloodline Trilogy, is releasing this month and in this instance—there is an actual nefarious agent (not giving away too much) and a side meaning as well.

What poisons your life? Is it a bad relationship? Is it believing a lie? Is it an actual toxin like dirking too much liquor, using illegal drugs or prescription drugs in ways they weren’t intended?

Writing suspense, particularly with a heavy medical edge, I think requires something unusual to be found. I’m a research hound. I love to learn about new things. And for Poison, I read a lot on different types of toxins.  

Aren’t toxins interesting? How minute substances can make a person ill or end up killing? This is the stuff suspense novels are made from and the lure for every author—finding that one poison—undetectable, fast-acting, easily transmittable or ingested without the victim knowing.

I remember as a youngster hearing the story of how a long-dead great uncle had passed. According to my grandfather, he’d served in the military during WWI and had died as the result of complications from mustard gas exposure.

So lately, in thinking about toxins, I began to wonder what exactly mustard gas was and how did it kill.

Interestingly, I discovered that term “gas” can mean more than just a vaporous substance and can be any chemical substance.

Lethal Gases: Lead to disablement or death.
Harassing agents: Disrupt enemy soldiers.
Accidental Gases: Gases encountered during war that are not related to a chemical agent like excessive gases from gunpowder during a fight.

Mustard gas falls into the first group—lethal gases. Tear gas, for instance, would fall into the second category. 

But how does mustard gas kill?

Mustard gas is also called sulfur mustard and its name is derived from its foggy yellow appearance and mustard like smell. It’s a blistering agent/alkylating agent and comes in many forms: vapor, liquid or solid. When a person comes into contact with the agent, it damages the skin and mucous membranes inside. The chemical liquefies tissue.

Since it freezes at a high temperature, it’s not very effective when it’s cold. It doesn’t spread easily and would fall to the ground before soldiers could be exposed. This property also made it a good weapon because it could stay low on the ground for weeks depending on the temperature and expose unsuspecting troops going into the area. Another factor that made it a good weapon—people adjusted to the smell quickly.

Mustard gas was used first by the Germans in 1917 and was born out of the trench warfare era where new military strategies had to be devised to get men out of their bunkers. The agent was fitted onto artillery shells which were then shot to toward the enemy lines without the accompanying explosion which I’m sure seemed strange to the soldiers at the time.

Hey, why didn’t that thing blow up? What exactly is that yellow fog?

Unfortunately, mustard gas doesn’t often kill expediently. The first symptom was generally red blisters to the skin that developed within 2-24 hours. If the gas was inhaled, these blisters would slowly develop and seal off the airway.

Other symptoms:

  •  Eyes: Irritation, redness, burning, inflammation and even blindness
  • Skin: Itchy redness that is replaced with yellow blister
  • Respiratory system: Runny or bloody nose, sneezing, hoarse throat, shortness of breath, coughing, sinus pain
  • Digestive system: abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, nausea and vomiting

It was possible for the body to heal if there was a short, brief encounter. Longer, more frequent exposures proved to be more deadly. 

By the end of WWI, chemical agents inured 1 million soldiers and civilians and killed 100,000 people.

Likely, mustard gas wouldn’t be considered favorable to use in chemical warfare these days because of its prolonged activity. 

This link goes to a very powerful article on mustard gas and its effects and was used heavily in the writing of this piece—the italicized areas are from the article. It is definitely worth the read.
What about you? What interesting things have you researched that have ended up in a novel?


  1. how interesting...who knew!!

    thanks for the chance to read your latest novel, jordyn.

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  2. This book sounds interesting. I love Agatha Christie, who also studied poisons. I grew up in a home filled with abuse and at the age of eight, after my father's incestuous visit, I remember checking under the sink for a poison to squirrel away if things got too bad. I found some Draino, a lye based poison. Glad I never took it, but it was comforting to know that I had a way out. For many years I kept a stash for such purposes. When I finally was healed of the pain, I dumped it all. I look forward to reading your book.
    HM at HVC dot RR dot COM

  3. Excited about your new book. Now about mustard gas, in the 1960s (I know, I'm old) my "older" neighbor told about her father who was gassed with mustard gas in WWI and it affected his lungs permanently. He had a bad cough. It was so bad that people would stare at him in church and avoid him. That was also a period of time when TB was so dreaded and cures hard to come by. People feared he had TB. Sadly, he and his family quit church altogether.

    1. I can see that fear especially in light of the TB issue. Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. I'd love to read Poison, a complete combo medical/science; learning and the thrill enjoyment. Very stimulating!

  5. Two interesting things I've reseached for two different novels: white supremacy and hunting knives (to be used as a murder weapon).

    I'd love to read POISON.


  6. I enjoy reading medical thrillers, and Poison sounds really good! Thanks for sharing your information and offering a giveaway!

  7. Time for a new author up in Michigan...I work in the clerical medical field and enjoy medical stories..

  8. I love to learn new things as I read, and I much prefer to do that via suspense fiction! I find it very interesting how God often uses our past experiences and what we've learned along our journey of life to broaden our thinking and to have it available to help others when a need arises. Yesterday in one of my classes, one of my students began to have a panic attack. If it hadn't been for things I've learned from reading, I would not have had any idea how to help her. That's one reason why I believe author research is so important and needs to be spot on accurate, because people do take away new knowledge and it needs to be correct information. Love your books and would love to be one of the recipients of Poison. ktrim(at)team japan(dot)org Just so you know, I do live in Japan but I have a permanent U.S. address.

  9. Well, I'm not a writer but a teacher! I research things for my job as special ed teacher. I read on the latest findings for autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, new interventions, behavior management, etc. Not quite as exciting as a suspense writer but I don't have to worry about my research raising red flags to authorities either. LOL

    I am looking forward to reading Poison after reading Proof. I need to make sure I have a block of time to read. Once I got started reading, I didn't want to quit! I expect Poison to be the same way.

    kaskaggs at fourway dot net