Can you accidentally make deadly mustard gas with common cleaning products?

Is homemade mustard gas just an urban legend?

Quick notes:

  • It pays to be careful when working in your kitchen

  • Combining the wrong household cleaners can have unexpected results

  • If you think you’ve been exposed, call your local poison control center to be sure.

At the top of the list of things that you don’t want in your home are probably items used in chemical warfare. If they’re not on your list, they should be.

Surprisingly, despite its lethal nature, many people think that one of these chemical weapons, mustard gas, can be made right in your kitchen with the simple combination of two common household cleaners. But, is it really that easy?

About mustard gas

Before you learn how to make mustard gas, it is a good idea to find out more about what the substance actually is. Also known as sulfur mustard, the chemical was introduced in WWI as an agent used to disable or kill an enemy. It isn’t found naturally in Earth’s environment and it has absolutely no medical use.

What does exposure to mustard gas do? It causes blistering of the skin and mucous membranes on contact. Humans can be exposed to it through water or through the air, and it can easily be carried by the wind. It can last one to two days in the environment and it breaks down slowly in the human body.

Making it at home

Unsplash

For a long time, people have believed that if you mix ammonia and bleach together you’ll come up with mustard gas. Sounds pretty extreme, right?

As it turns out, making mustard gas this way is really just an urban legend. However, mixing ammonia and bleach still isn’t a good idea. That’s because the combination quickly creates another chemical used in warfare, chlorine gas. This compound was also used in WWI and brings on blurring vision and painful breathing. With enough exposure, it will asphyxiate anyone who has had to breathe it.

Other dangerous household chemical combinations

Mixing ammonia and bleach isn’t the only way that someone can get into trouble in their kitchen. The combination of bleach and vinegar also makes toxic chlorine gas. Furthermore, the combination of rubbing alcohol and bleach makes chloroform and acetaminophen and alcohol can cause irreversible liver damage.

Some household chemical combinations aren’t pleasant, but they’re not deadly, either. Drinking both RedBull and milk can give you a stomachache, and taking St. John’s Wort if you’re also taking birth control can undermine any contraceptive value that the pill has. Lastly, combining morel mushrooms and alcohol brings on morel mushroom poisoning which won’t kill you but won’t make you feel great either.

What to do if you’ve been exposed to toxic substances

If you think you’ve been exposed to any kind of poisonous substance at home, don’t hesitate. Call your local poison control center right away.

If you think that you’ve been exposed to any kind of toxic substance, quickly call your area poison control center. If you can’t dial yourself, have a friend or family member dial for you. The center’s experts can listen to details about what you think you’ve been exposed to and then recommend the next steps to take.

What kinds of things might they ask you to do? In some cases, simply getting fresh air or thoroughly rinsing your eyes, skin, or any other body part that has experienced chemical contact may be enough. Don’t be surprised, though, if poison control recommends a trip to the emergency room. Chemical exposure can have serious consequences and it is better to be checked out by a doctor than to risk any long term effects.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101

30 practical uses for Coca-Cola | Science 101
Coca Cola may be the tool you didn’t know you needed in your kitchen

Your Antibiotic Resistance And A Kitchen Sponge Have Something In Common | Science 101
Yes, your kitchen sponge may be able to teach scientists about the larger world.