Know your chemical weapons

These know-your-chemical-weapon posters were produced by the Medical Training Replacement Center at Camp Barkeley near Abilene, Texas as training materials for soldiers being sent to fight in WWII. They're a weird mix of cheerfulness and atrocity:

Of the four chemicals mentioned here—phosgene, lewisite, mustard gas, and chlorpicrin—three were used in World War I. (Lewisite was produced beginning in 1918, but the war ended before it could be used.) Phosgene, which irritates the lungs and mucus membranes and causes a person to choke to death, caused the largest number of deaths among people killed by chemical weapons in the First World War. (Elsewhere on Slate: A firsthand account of what it felt like to be hit by mustard gas.)

The smells that these posters warn soldiers-in-training to be wary of are the everyday scents of home: flypaper, musty hay, green corn, geraniums, garlic. The choice of analogies seems particularly appropriate for soldiers raised on farms­—a population that would become increasingly small in every war to follow.

Four WWII Posters That Taught Soldiers to Identify Chemical Weapons by Smell (via Kadrey)

(Images: National Museum of Health and Medicine)


  1. I haven’t smelled flypaper in 30 years.  I wonder how many people today know what flypaper smells like?

  2. Phosgene is also used in semiconductor manufacturing.  Whenever the fire alarm goes off, those guys from the clean room are the first ones out the building.

    1. They seem to use all kinds of dreadful stuff for semiconductor manufacturing. Samsung can’t seem to stop spilling hydrofuoric acid on people, and I’m told that some processes have the… pleasure… of using Chlorine trifluoride for equipment cleaning purposes(which, in fairness, is a task that it probably performs with zeal and efficiency practically unheard of among lesser compounds)…

      1.  I know Intel uses at least 3 people to move certain chemicals, including spotters who clear the hallway. That’s some caustic stuff.

      2. Quoted from Wikipedia
        Chlorine trifluoride is “hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water”

        Holy crap.  It’s the kind of stuff that makes you explode if it gets on you.  Now that’s a chemical weapon…. But is it as hazardous as dioxygen difluoride (FOOF)?

        1. Dioxygen Diflouride is at least so unstable that it will never travel too far from where it was manufactured.  Chlorine Triflouride might be more dangerous because people are actually using it regularly, it’s not confined to chemistry lab testbenches. 

  3. Curiously, mustard gas started leading a secret double life as a humanitarian in the early 40s, when the efficacy of  Mechlorethamine against lymphoma was recognized. Horrific area-denial blister agent by day, secret cancer-curing clinical trials by night. 

    Still a trifle unnerving to have something be a prescription drug and a Schedule 1 substance for the purposes of the Chemical Weapons Convention; but I suppose that the boundaries between an undesired proliferation of human cells and an undesired proliferation of humans are pretty subtle when you are just a small organic molecule…

    1. Reminds me of warfarin: started life as rat poison, it’s now the most widely prescribed anticoagulant in the US.

      (BTW — the “warfar” part isn’t from warfare, but rather the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.)

  4. Feels like I’m wearing nothing at all
    …nothing at all….
    …nothing at all….

  5. “Medical Training Replacement Center”? Is this a centre producing a replacement for medical training, or is this the replacement for the medical training centre?

  6. Phosgene can be created accidentally if a chlorinated solvent, most commonly brake cleaner, is used to clean metal before welding. Since even a tiny amount can be fatal, the weldor may never get the chance to regret his or her mistake.

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