Mustard Plants to Detect Chemical Weapon Use

Sinapis alba or White Mustard Plant
The common white mustard plant (Sinapis alba) could help detect chemical weapon use. Credit: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1897

The use of chemical weapons is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention between 190 member countries. Unfortunately, the use of these weapons is still occasionally reported. To prove a chemical weapons strike, soil samples are tested for the suspected agents. However, nerve agents such as sarin, soman and VX fade from soil fairly rapidly. This makes it difficult to detect these agents if the test takes too long to perform.

Researchers from the University of Lancashire have found the common white mustard plant, Sinapis alba can help with this problem. These plants grow wild in nearly every corner of the world. They are pollutant resistant and can absorb the chemical weapons from the soil into their roots. These absorbed chemical weapons will stay in the plant for up to 45 days after the initial exposure.

The researchers tested the white mustard plant in different types of soil spiked with VX nerve agents. Plants in sandy soil absorbed the VX the quickest, but by 45 days, all the absorbed VX levels in all types of soil had converged to the same amounts.

This research can add another tool to verify the use of chemical weapons. It also shows the white mustard plant could be used to clean up polluted soil from a chemical weapon attack. They found these plants may metabolize the chemical weapons they absorb and break them down to their less harmful components.

This research was published online 21 May 2014  in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.