In case of a chemical or biological weapon attack near you, authorities will instruct you on the best course of action. This may be to evacuate the area immediately, to seek shelter at a designated location, or to take immediate shelter where you are and seal the premises. The best way to protect yourself is to take emergency preparedness measures ahead of time and to get medical attention as soon as possible, if needed.
Chemical warfare agents are poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquids or solids that have toxic effects on people, animals or plants. They can be released by bombs, sprayed from aircraft, boats, or vehicles, or used as a liquid to create a hazard to people and the environment. Some chemical agents may be odorless and tasteless. They can have an immediate effect (a few seconds to a few minutes) or a delayed effect (several hours to several days). While potentially lethal, chemical agents are difficult to deliver in lethal concentrations. Outdoors, the agents often dissipate rapidly. Chemical agents are also difficult to produce.
There are six types of agents:
- Lung-damaging (pulmonary) agents such as phosgene,
- Vesicants or blister agents such as mustard,
- Nerve agents such as GA (tabun), GB (sarin), GD (soman), GF, and VX,
- Incapacitating agents such as BZ, and
- Riot-control agents (similar to MACE).
Biological agents are organisms or toxins that can kill or incapacitate people, livestock and crops. The three basic groups of biological agents that would likely be used as weapons are bacteria, viruses and toxins.
- Bacteria. Bacteria are small, free-living organisms that reproduce by simple division and are easy to grow. The diseases they produce often respond to treatment with antibiotics.
- Viruses. Viruses are organisms that require living cells in which to reproduce and are intimately dependent upon the body they infect. Viruses produce diseases that generally do not respond to antibiotics. However, antiviral drugs are sometimes effective.
- Toxins. Toxins are poisonous substances found in, and extracted from, living plants, animals, or microorganisms; some toxins can be produced or altered by chemical means. Some toxins can be treated with specific antitoxins and selected drugs. Most biological agents are difficult to grow and maintain. Many break down quickly when exposed to sunlight and other environmental factors, while others such as anthrax spores are very long lived. They can be dispersed by spraying them in the air or infecting animals that carry the disease to humans, as well through food and water contamination.
- Aerosols—Biological agents are dispersed into the air, forming a fine mist that may drift for miles. Inhaling the agent may cause disease in people or animals.
- Animals—Some diseases are spread by insects and animals, such as fleas, mice, flies and mosquitoes. Deliberately spreading diseases through livestock is also referred to as agroterrorism.
- Food and water contamination—Some pathogenic organisms and toxins may persist in food and water supplies. Most microbes can be killed, and toxins deactivated, by cooking food and boiling water. Anthrax spores formulated as a white powder were mailed to individuals in the government and media in the fall of 2001. Postal sorting machines and the opening of letters dispersed the spores as aerosols. Several deaths resulted. The effect was to disrupt mail service and to cause a widespread fear of handling delivered mail among the public. Person-to-person spread of a few infectious agents is also possible. Humans have been the source of infection for smallpox, plague and the Lassa viruses. Be aware of your surroundings. The very nature of terrorism suggests that there may be little or no warning.
Assemble a disaster supply kit and be sure to include:
- Battery-powered commercial radio with extra batteries.
- Non-perishable food and drinking water.
- Roll of duct tape and scissors.
- Plastic for doors, windows and vents for the room in which you will shelter in place—this should be an internal room where you can block out air that may contain hazardous chemical or biological agents. To save critical time during an emergency, sheeting should be pre-measured and cut for each opening.
- First-aid kit.
- Sanitation supplies including soap, water and bleach.
- Listen to your radio for instructions from authorities such as whether to remain inside or to evacuate.
- If you are instructed to remain in your home, the building where you are, or other shelter during a chemical or biological attack.
- Turn off all ventilation, including furnaces, air conditioners, vents and fans.
- Seek shelter in an internal room, preferably one without windows. Seal the room with duct tape and plastic sheeting. Ten square feet of floor space per person will provide sufficient air to prevent carbon dioxide build-up for up to five hours.
- Remain in protected areas where toxic vapors are reduced or eliminated, and be sure to take your battery-operated radio with you.
- If you are caught in an unprotected area, you should:
- Attempt to get up-wind of the contaminated area.
- Attempt to find shelter as quickly as possible.
- Listen to your radio for official instructions.
Immediate symptoms of exposure to chemical agents may include blurred vision, eye irritation, difficulty breathing and nausea. A person affected by a chemical or biological agent requires immediate attention by professional medical personnel.
If medical help is not immediately available, decontaminate yourself and assist in decontaminating others. Decontamination is needed within minutes of exposure to minimize health consequences. (However, you should not leave the safety of a shelter to go outdoors to help others until authorities announce it is safe to do so.) The best protection against a chemical or biological attack would come from being prepared and getting quick medical attention.
- Use extreme caution when helping others who have been exposed to chemical agents:
- Remove all clothing and other items in contact with the body. Contaminated clothing normally removed over the head should be cut off to avoid contact with the eyes, nose and mouth. Put into a plastic bag if possible. Decontaminate hands using soap and water. Remove eyeglasses or contact lenses. Put glasses in a pan of household bleach to decontaminate.
- Remove all items in contact with the body.
- Flush eyes with lots of water.
- Gently wash face and hair with soap and water; then, thoroughly rinse with water.
- Decontaminate other body areas likely to have been contaminated. Blot (do not swab or scrape) with a cloth soaked in soapy water and rinse with clear water.
- Change into uncontaminated clothes. Clothing stored in drawers or closets is likely to be uncontaminated.
- If possible, proceed to a medical facility for screening.
In many biological attacks, people will not know they have been exposed to an agent. In such situations, the first evidence of an attack may be when you notice symptoms of the disease caused by an agent exposure, and you should seek immediate medical attention for treatment.
In some situations, like the anthrax letters sent in 2001, people may be alerted to a potential exposure. If this is the case, pay close attention to all official warnings and instructions on how to proceed. The delivery of medical services for a biological event may be handled differently to respond to increased demand. Again, it will be important for you to pay attention to official instructions via radio, television and emergency alert systems. If your skin or clothing comes in contact with a visible, potentially infectious substance, you should remove and bag your clothes and personal items and wash yourself with warm soapy water immediately. Put on clean clothes and seek medical assistance.
For more information, visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .