The Coast Guard is working with the EPA and other officials to quarantine and decontaminate a fishing vessel exposed to mustard gas when ten munition shells were caught in their dredging nets over the weekend. One of the canisters broke open and at least two of the six crew members were exposed to the banned chemical weapon and began to display symptoms. Earlier today, a doctor treating one of the fisherman announced that blood and urine tests confirmed the man was exposed to mustard gas.
“Mustard gas not only causes blistering of the skin, but also permanent lung and eye damage,” according to Joshua Gray, Ph.D., a chemistry professor at the Coast Guard Academy and a published authority on chemical weapons. “This chemical weapon is particularly dangerous because there is no pain upon initial exposure, and symptoms do not appear for several hours. Furthermore, the blisters can take months to heal, and no medical countermeasures exist that can speed the rate of healing.”
The ESS PURSUIT, a clam boat out of Atlantic City, N.J., dredged up ten munitions shells while fishing for clams approximately 45 miles south of Fire Island, N.Y. on Sunday. At least two of the canisters were brought aboard the vessel and one of them cracked open. The vessel reportedly returned to port, sent the two symptomatic crew members to the hospital, offloaded 39,000 pounds of clams and went back out to their fishing waters. On Monday, the Coast Guard issued a captain of the port order to the ESS PURSUIT to return to port after two of their crew members were taken to a local hospital and treated for symptoms of exposure to a hazardous/chemical substance. The Coast Guard then initiated a safety zone around the vessel as local, state and federal officials – including members of the Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team, initiated their response to the presence of hazardous materials.
“Clams exposed to the agent would be unable to survive in the ocean, so it is unlikely that these clams were contaminated,” said Dr. Gray. “The disposal of any clams associated with these munitions removes any possibility of exposure.”
Banned by the 1925 Geneva Conventions as “justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world”, mustard gas was used extensively during World War I by Germany and later by the Allies. Originally delivered in an aerosol form, it was later dispersed through munitions including aerial bombs, land mines, mortar rounds, artillery shells, and rockets.
“The U.S. currently has stockpiles of chemical weapons that are being incinerated to comply with the treaty,” said Dr. Gray. “However, many chemical weapons munitions were dumped along the east coast after World War I in areas easily reached by dredging activities, and many times the sites of dumping were not recorded. Because mustard gas is extremely stable at cool temperatures, these munitions have the potential to injure anyone who comes into contact with them. Anyone finding a munition shell should be extremely cautious and notify the authorities immediately.”
The ESS PURSUIT will be subjected to decontamination before being allowed to return to the home port and the area in which the canisters were found will be searched for the remaining canisters identified by the fishermen. These munitions will ultimately be disposed of by the U.S. Army. Furthermore, a notice to mariners will be published warning of the potential presence of further canisters in the area.