*Department of Pyrofrolics and Inorganometallics, University of West Failure
Tragedy has struck the small English town of Shattford-on-Spry this week, where four people are fighting for their lives. The victims all presented at the Shattfordshire general hospital within hours of each other, suffering from laboured breathing and gruesome skin blisters. Staff were baffled by these horrific lesions, until Dr Chugg McGlumpher recognised them from his time as a medic in the Great War. “I was rather startled when a nurse showed me the patients,” said Dr McGlumpher. “I haven’t seen burns like these since 4th Ypres. This was caused by mustard gas, no doubt about it”
We asked Dr McGlumpher why a first world war veteran was still working in 2022. “I’ve been trying to retire for 55 years, but they just keep rostering me on. That’s the NHS for you.”
With the chemical culprit identified, it didn’t take investigators long to track down the source: “mustard and rosemary” scented candles purchased from a boutique in East Shattford (figure 1).
Police have detained the shop’s proprietor, Harry Spong, whose testimony has been most informative. It would seem that Mr Spong was intent on cutting corners in the manufacturing of his scented candles:
“The whole process of mixing herbs, extracting essential oils and infusing spices into the wax was so tedious and time consuming. Then I realised you can just buy a bottle of orange-flavour chemical off the web, splash some in and hey presto – you’ve got yourself a ‘sensual citrus’ candle. I’d throw in a few chunks of orange peel too, just to make it look authentic. The smells were so intense, people couldn’t get enough of them.”
This shortcut appears to be relatively harmless, if not entirely honest, and indeed Spong’s candles containing cinnamaldehyde, eugenol and vanillin are delightful, if slightly overpowering. It was Spong’s lack of chemical literacy that brought him undone:
“I failed chemistry at school like every normal kid does, I was never one of those nerdy losers. I can’t draw a hexagon for shit, but buying these flavour-chemicals was pretty easy: vanillin – that must be vanilla, cinnamaldehyde – probably cinnamon, limonene – bet that’s lemons.1 So you can understand why, when I saw a thing called ‘mustine’ I thought – that must be mustard-flavour. I saw some stuff on the webpage about anti-cancer properties and thought it sounded perfect”
Unfortunately for Harry Spong and the people of Shattford, mustine is not mustard flavour, but is in fact a member of the family of chemical warfare agents called “nitrogen mustards”. These compounds rip through tissue with all the discretion of an angry bull in an alley full of Spaniards, and alkylate proteins like it’s 50%-off nitrogen at the Black Friday sales. These things are so vile, even cancers can’t handle them.2 When Spong’s unsuspecting customers lit their candles, they effectively aerosolised the mustine, unintentionally creating the most soothing chemical weapon devised to date.
The presence of mustine in these candles raises some pressing questions. First, why did a major (and un-named for legal reasons) chemical retailer deem it reasonable to deliver 100 g of a chemical warfare agent to a small businessman in shattfordshire? Police are vigorously seeking an answer to this question. Second, who the fuck wants a candle that smells like mustard? We intend to ask the victims this question, if or when they recover.
Prompted by the presence of mustine, forensic chemists analysed the other candles in Spong’s shop, while forensic accountants perused his ledger of sales. Both teams turned up some interesting findings. A “chilli and garlic” candle was found to contain worrying levels of capsaicin, the spicy component of chillies and pepper spray. The accountants tracked a purchase of 5000 such candles to the Washington DC police department, who stated an intention to trial their use in riot suppression. Spong’s “chia and poppyseed” candle contained enough thebaine to sedate an alpaca.3 His sales records show a lot of repeat customers for this product, which he attributed to brand loyalty. Finally, the investigators found a small blue “mood-candle” which was packed to the gills with sildenafil.
As surprising as it seems, this isn’t the first time that a poisonous candle has been responsible for a public health emergency. In 2019, two suspected Russian agents attempted to use a thallium-laced candle to assassinate the dissident Poryadochnyy Chelovek. The distinctive green flame gave away the plot, and saved Chelovek’s life. It is thought that this plot was formulated by the same team who assassinated Olga Brolgavic with a caesium-filled bath bomb in 2014.
- Of course we know that limonene smells like oranges (not lemons), because every rule in chemistry has to have exceptions.
- See the electronic unsupported information for experimental details.