Dr M Geoffrey Miller, Editor
Poisonous gases are produced by all explosives, but owing to their rapid diffusion the majority are harmless unless they collect in closed spaces such as dug-outs or cellars. Under such conditions carbon-monoxide poisoning may occur (vide shell-shock). Shells which are specially constructed to set free asphyxiating and lachrymatory gases have been much used, but very little is known about their composition. The most serious form of gas-poisoning and the only one which will be considered in this chapter is that produced by heavy gases, which are set free in the enemy's trenches to drift with the wind. This brutal method of warfare was clearly premeditated, as shortly before the war a leading German pharmacologist and his pupils published papers which show that they were investigating the subject in great detail.
Asphyxiating gas was first used on April 22nd, 1915, in a German attack on Algerian and Zouave troops, who, being taken completely by surprise, broke before it. On the two following days attacks under cover of gas were made on Canadian and English soldiers in the neighbourhood of Ypres. Although no respirators were available and the losses were heavy, the troops held their ground. Another attack was made early in May; the men had now been provided with respirators, consisting of pads soaked in a solution of sodium bicarbonate, and these gave some protection. The third attack on May 24th and all subsequent ones have produced less serious results, as respirators of steadily increasing efficiency have been introduced.
The gas used has never been collected for analysis, but it is probably chlorine in most cases; indeed a deposit of chlorides has been found on the buttons of gassed soldiers. Chlorine was chosen on account of its exceptionally irritating character ; it rapidly puts a man out of action when inhaled in a strength of only 1 in 10,000, whereas sulphur dioxide is only effective in a concentration four times as great. Chlorine, being much heavier than air, readily drifts and sinks into trenches, dug-outs, and cellars. It can be rapidly manufactured in enormous quantities and is easily compressed into cylinders, in which it can be conveyed to the front.
The first effect produced by the irritant action of the gas is a profuse exudation of a thin, light yellow, albuminous fluid by the bronchial mucous membrane, as well as a very active secretion by the lachrymal and salivary glands; these are the results of protective reflexes, the object of which is to dilute the irritant poison and render it innocuous. At the same time spasm of the bronchial muscles occurs in an attempt to obstruct the passage of the gas into the alveoli. In severe cases the bronchial secretion and spasm not only fail to protect the alveoli, but obstruct the entry of air into the lungs, to such an extent that the patient becomes asphyxiated and may die before the fluid is expectorated and the spasm relaxes. An autopsy at this stage shows slight congestion of the larynx and intense congestion and oedema of the trachea and larger bronchi, which are filled with frothy fluid. The lungs are intensely congested and oedematous, but the violent respiration caused by the asphyxia produces small patches of over-distended lung, seen on the surface as light grey areas in the least damaged parts, into which air can still pass. The distended alveoli may rupture into the interstitial tissue, and air may spread into the mediastinum and even to the neck.
In all but the mildest cases the asphyxial stage is followed by a stage in which acute inflammation with profuse exudation of lymph occurs as a result of the irritant action of the gas on the bronchial mucous membrane and the alveoli. If the patient dies in this stage the serous fluid in the bronchi is replaced by muco-pus, and more or less extensive broncho-pneumonia is found.
There is no conclusive evidence that the chlorine is absorbed by the blood and conveyed by it to other parts of the body. Nephritis has occasionally been found post-mortem, though there has very rarely been any clinical evidence of its presence; thus albumin and casts are rarely found, oedema never occurs, and only one case of uraemia has been recorded. According to Leonard Hill, the nephritis is not due, as suggested by Bradford and Elliott, to the toxic action of the gas after absorption; he regards it as a result of asphyxiation and analogous to the condition which results from temporary occlusion of the renal artery. At a later stage secondary toxic effects may be_ caused by absorption of the products of the pathological changes in the lungs. If death occurs in the earlier stages, the right side of the heart is greatly dilated and the brain and all the abdominal organs show marked congestion due to asphyxia. The mucous membrane of the stomach is red and covered with thick yellowish mucus, submucous haemorrhages are common, and superficial erosions may be present: these changes are partly due to the asphyxia and partly to the irritant action of chlorine, dissolved in swallowed saliva and nasal and bronchial secretion.
The first effect of inhalation of chlorine is a burning pain in the throat and eyes, accompanied by a sensation of suffocation; pain, which may be severe, is felt in the chest, especially behind the sternum. Respiration becomes painful, rapid, and difficult ; coughing occurs, and the irritation of the eyes results in profuse lachrymation. Retching is common and may be followed by vomiting, which gives temporary relief. The lips and mouth are parched and the tongue is covered with a thick dry fur. Severe headache rapidly follows with a feeling of great weakness in the legs; if the patient gives way to this and lies down, he is likely to inhale still more chlorine, as the heavy gas is most concentrated near the ground. In severe poisoning unconsciousness follows; nothing more is known about the cases which prove fatal on the field within the first few hours of the "gassing," except that the face assumes a pale greenish yellow colour. When a man lives long enough to be admitted into a clearing station, he is conscious, but restless; his face is violet red, and his ears and finger nails blue ; his expression strained and anxious as he gasps for breath; he tries to get relief by sitting up with his head thrown back, or he lies in an exhausted condition, sometimes on his side with his head over the edge of the stretcher in order to help the escape of fluid from the lungs. His skin is cold and his temperature subnormal; the pulse is full and rarely over 100. Respiration is jerky, shallow and rapid, the rate being often over 40 and sometimes even 80 a minute ; all the auxiliary muscles come into play, the chest being over-distended at the height of inspiration and, as in asthma, only slightly less distended in extreme expiration. Frequent and painful coughing occurs and some frothy sputum is brought up. The lungs are less resonant than normal, but not actually dull, and fine riles with occasional rhonchi and harsh but not bronchial breathing are heard, especially over the back and sides.
Headache is generally severe, and there is also considerable epigastric discomfort, due partly to the strain of coughing and partly to gastric irritation, as it is increased if an attempt is made to eat.
The intense dyspncea of this asphyxial stage lasts about thirty-six hours, after which it gradually subsides, if death does not occur before. The patient, exhausted from his fight for breath, then falls asleep and wakes up feeling much relieved.
A few hours later acute bronchitis or broncho-pneumonia develops. In severe cases the quiescent interval is short and the bronchitis very severe. The sputum is now viscid, yellow or greenish, and muco-purulent with occasional streaks of blood. Respiration becomes more shallow and rapid, and the rate may finally be even 70 or 80 a minute. The pulse is small and very rapid ; the temperature rises, and is often as high as 104. The patient may now become delirious. Pleurisy may occur, and in some instances empyema and gangrene of the lung have followed.
After recovery from the bronchitis and pneumonia the patient remains weak and exhausted for a considerable time. He gets tired very rapidly and is unable to walk quickly or up hill without getting short of breath, even after the last signs of bronchitis have disappeared. He may continue to have attacks of dyspncea and cyanosis for several weeks. The frightful experience he has passed through often affects his nervous system, and some of the attacks are doubtless aggravated by apprehension. Headache, vertigo and dyspepsia may continue for several weeks.
Prognosis. Nothing is known as to the proportion of men who die from "gassing" on the field. Before efficient respirators were in use about 5 per cent. of those who reached the clearing stations died within forty-eight hours. Of those who reached the base hospitals between 1 and 2 per cent. died in the second or third week from broncho-pneumonia or other pulmonary complications.The mildest cases are often fit for light duty after a short period of rest, but they should not be sent back until all adventitious sounds have disappeared from the lungs. A considerable time elapses before complete restoration of health occurs in the more severe cases, and it is still doubtful whether more or less permanent incapacity may not sometimes follow.
Prophylaxis. The introduction of efficient respirators has almost abolished the danger of drift gas. Regular drill in the use of the respirators and inspection to see that they are in good condition are most important, as it takes time to get accustomed to breathing whilst wearing a respirator, and a damaged respirator may be worse than useless.
Treatment. The patient should be kept warm with extra blankets, hot-water bottles and hot drinks, and his bed should be near an open window or out of doors. Owing to the irritated condition of the stomach a fluid diet should be given at first. Absolute rest is of the greatest importance.
In severe cases the chief object of treatment is to expel the fluid, which is drowning the patient, from the lungs. This can be done by artificial respiration, repeated whenever the dyspncea becomes excessive. After squeezing the fluid out of the lungs, it may be necessary to blow air in from mouth to mouth in order to overcome the resistance of the froth in the smaller bronchi. An apparatus was introduced by Leonard Hill for use in collapsed and unconscious cases: a foot-pump feeds a face-mask through a flexible tube ; by each downstroke a measured volume of air or oxygen is pumped into the lungs, and by each upstroke a valve is opened which allows the air to escape by the elastic recoil of the thorax and lungs. From time to time the fluid is evacuated by squeezing the thorax and hanging the head over the side of the stretcher.
Unless the patient is collapsed or unconscious, vomiting gives great relief by expelling large quantities of yellowish frothy fluid from the lungs; if this does not occur spontaneously, the patient puts his finger down his throat after drinking half a pint of warm salt water. Ipecacuanha and apomorphine should not be used.
The inhalation of oxygen relieves cyanosis and improves the patient's condition. But it is very difficult to get a patient who is fighting for breath to tolerate any form of mask, without which it is impossible to give oxygen really efficiently. Administered in the ordinary way through an open funnel held near the patient's face the oxygen in the alveolar air is only increased by 1 or 2 per cent., whereas by using a mask and suitable apparatus the alveolar air should contain as much as 70 per cent. of oxygen.
Theoretically atropine should help to diminish bronchial spasm and secretion during the first twenty-four hours; but it has been found useless in severe cases and disappointing in slighter ones. Atropine is certainly valuable in the attacks of dyspnoea which may occur during convalescence, and I have found that stramonium taken regularly diminishes the liability to these attacks; potassium iodide in small doses is also useful.
Inhalations of ammonia are useful in the earliest stages, and after the second day ammonium carbonate in doses of gr. v every three hours produces copious expectoration, which results in improvement of colour and considerable relief. When great restlessness and mental distress are present, morphia should be injected.
Extreme cyanosis with a full pulse is greatly relieved by bleeding: breathing becomes easier, headache is relieved, and the patient falls into a refreshing sleep. Lian and Hebblethwaite found that the effect is most marked if venesection is performed in the first few hours. From 15 to 25 ozs. of blood should be slowly removed. The blood is dark and coagulates with abnormal rapidity. Bleeding is contra-indicated if the patient is pale and collapsed.
On the Treatment of Wounds in War, London, 1915. Sir J. R. Bradford and T. R. Elliott : British Journal of Surgery, III. 234, 1915.
J. Elliott Black, E. T. Glenny, and J. W. McNee : Brit. Med. Journal, 1915, II. 165.
Leonard Hill : Brit. Med. Journal, 1915, II. 801.
A. S. Hebblethwaite : Brit. Med. Journal, 1916, II. 107.
E. Sergent and E. Agud : Bull. et Mem. de la Soc. Med. des H˘pitaux de Paris, XXXIX. 960, 1915.
C. Lien : Bull. et Mem. de la Soc. Med. des Hopitaux de Paris, XXXIX. 1067, 1915.