Agent T

I was convinced Germany was the odd one out, with Senf (Germans are fond of capitalizing common nouns), and I expected the Scandinavians to follow suit—which is the case, but to my surprise one Southern European nation is much closer to the northern school of mustard: the Italian word is senape, suspiciously close to the Swedish senap.

A little more delving reveals the origin is the Latin sinapi, itself from the Ancient Greek σίναπι. Greece is a land of ambiguity, so the current term is μουστάρδα—I trust you all remember your Greek alphabet (αβ)—I learned mine in math class.

μουστάρδα is aligned with Dutch, French, and Portuguese—even Irish. Mustard in the US is a bland proposition, as it is in Portugal, but in the UK the powder wears its true colors—the Portuguese aphorism for rising anger, ‘subir-lhe a mostarda ao nariz’ (up his mustard to the nose in Googledygook Translate), came true for me when I was fifteen, with a tablespoon of Colman’s.

Paradoxically, mustard powder only becomes hot if mixed with cold water: the enzyme myrosinase acts on a substance called sinigrin to produce a sulfur compound called allyl isothiocyanate.

Allyl isocyanide in full regalia: few carbons and hydrogens, one blue nitrogen, and the wicked yellow sulphur. Five drops and your head explodes.

Allyl isocyanate: a few carbons and hydrogens, one blue nitrogen, and the wicked yellow sulphur. Five drops and your head explodes.

This is a colorless, ferocious oil—the Chinese bottle it, and a few drops will set your mouth on fire—a sensation I’m particularly fond of. Allyl isothiocyanate is also responsible for the pungency in radish and horseradish—this of course includes wasabi.

Is this potency somehow connected to the production of mustard gas? The gas made infamous in the trenches of the Great War, and now re-appearing at a theater near you,  contains all the carbons and hydrogens—this is organic chemistry after all—but it brings to the table one of the bad boys: brother chlorine.

Mustard gas initially had a much more appropriate name: LOST, which combined the names of Germans who first produced it on a large scale—Lommel and Steinkopf.

The Dark Side: shift a few atoms, and add the sinister green chlorine.

The Dark Side: shift a few atoms, and add the sinister green chlorine.

The molecule is part of a group known as mustards, characterized by a Lewis base (in this case the sulfur), a pair of carbon-hydrogens,  and a leaving group, which in mustard gas is chlorine.

Mustard gas is really an oil at low temperatures, but when a shell bursts the heat produced quickly disperses the gas—warmer climates are definitely more toxic, which plays to it’s use by ISIS against the Kurds.

Saddam Hussein used mustard gas against Iranians and Kurds in the 1980’s war, but prior to that the history is long and tragic: the UK used it on the Red Army, the French on the Moroccans, the Soviets against the Chinese, and then the Japanese used it again on China during the invasion.

There are various flavors, if you excuse the pun, of mustards (mustard gas): H, HD, and HT. Common to all is the letter H, which as far as I can determine, stands for Hun. Impurities add the mustard odor, the pure stuff has no color or smell.

H has 20-30% impurities, HD is distilled, and therefore much purer, and HT combines the HD with Agent T, an ether-based vesicant.

ISIS probably obtained the gas from Assad’s decommissioned stock or from Libya—Gaddafi undoubtedly had his own stash. Less likely is some secret cache from Iraq, or manufacture by ISIS itself.

But the reason I think this is coming to a theater near you (and me) is because the possibility of a canister of mustard gas being released in a crowded area is all too real.

In Atmos Fear a gas attack on the New York subway triggers mayhem on a busy morning, but it relies on a compound stolen upstate. LOST, on the other hand, can be synthesized with high school lab skills, and uses compounds available for everyday use.

Let’s hope it doesn’t happen, and spare a thought for the tragedies of the Mid-East—while in the West we ask for Senf with our steak.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

 

 

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