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Org Biomol Chem. 2012 Nov 28;10(44):8786-93. doi: 10.1039/c2ob26482j.

Sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen mustards: stability and reactivity.

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  • 1Department of Chemistry, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045, USA.


Mustard gas, bis(β-chloroethyl) sulfide (HD), is highly toxic and harmful to humans and the environment. It comprises one class of chemical warfare agents (CWAs) that was used in both World Wars I and II. The three basic analogues or surrogates are: the monochloro derivative, known as the half mustard, 2-chloroethyl ethyl sulfide (CEES); an oxygen analogue, bis(β-chloroethyl) ether (BCEE); and several nitrogen analogues based on the 2,2'-dichlorodiethylamine framework (e.g., HN1, HN2, and HN3). The origin of their toxicity is considered to be from the formation of three-membered heterocyclic ions, a reaction that is especially accelerated in aqueous solution. The reaction of these cyclic ion intermediates with a number of important biological species such as DNA, RNA and proteins causes cell toxicity and is responsible for the deleterious effects of the mustards. While a number of studies have been performed over the last century to determine the chemistry of these compounds, early studies suffered from a lack of more sophisticated NMR and X-ray techniques. It is now well-established that the sulfur and nitrogen mustards are highly reactive in water, while the oxygen analog is much more stable. In this study, we review and summarize results from previous studies, and add results of our own studies of the reactivity of these mustards toward various nonaqueous solvents and nucleophiles. In this manner a more comprehensive evaluation of the stability and reactivity of these related mustard compounds is achieved.

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