Domestic chemical warfare

A reader writes:

My brilliant son put a jar of mustard in the microwave for... a while. When we regained the ability to breathe and I managed to stop laughing, I grounded him because of his clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Australia is a signatory.

Then I started thinking. We just inhaled gaseous hot English mustard... does that mean we just inhaled mustard gas? Are we now at a higher risk of lung cancer, or something?


"Mustard", in culinary parlance, is a condiment made from mustard-plant seeds. Hot mustard is bad news if you get it in your eyes or sinuses, on account of a compound called allyl isothiocyanate, or AITC to its friends.

"Mustard", in chemical-weapons parlance, refers to any agent which creates a burning sensation and "lachrymatory" effect similar to that of AITC, and generally also has a somewhat similar smell to culinary mustard. These compounds are not at all related to edible mustard, though, and all have exciting extra toxic effects. The original "sulfur mustard" compounds that were used in World War I, for instance, are highly carcinogenic and cause agonising skin blisters and chemical burns, which can take as much as a day to develop.

It would be unwise of me to mention, in these pages which your son may read, that microwaving pepper can create a similar noxious cloud, the active agent in which is "piperine".

So I will not.

Psycho Science, as I have brilliantly decided to call it, is a new regular feature here. Ask me your science questions, and I'll answer them. Probably.

And then commenters will, I hope, correct at least the most obvious flaws in my answer.

One Response to “Domestic chemical warfare”

  1. rndmnmbr Says:

    Microwaving mustard also has the side effect of lessening it's intensity. The two compounds that give mustard seed their heat, myrosin and sinigrin, both degrade under heat. I've used the technique (in a well-ventilated house!) to tame a particularly savage store-brand of spicy brown mustard.

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