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How to Prepare for a Chemical Weapons Attack

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to deny that he ordered the use of chemical weapons against his own people, someone released Sarin gas in Damascus on August 21, killing more than 1,400 people…including women and children. A human-made chemical warfare agent classified as a nerve agent, Sarin is among the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents. Also known as GB, Sarin is a clear, colorless, and (in its purest form) is a tasteless liquid.

Sarin is just one of a large group of biological agents which could potentially be released into the environment anywhere in the world. So, regardless of whether the United States opts to launch a military strike against Syria in response to the Damascus attack, it is prudent to review the ways to prepare for and react to a chemical attack.

The (CDC) defines a chemical emergency as anytime a hazardous chemical has been released and has the potential for harming people’s health. Chemical releases can be unintentional, as in the case of an industrial accident, or intentional, as in the case of a terrorist attack. Scientists often categorize hazardous chemicals by the type of chemical or by the effects a chemical would have on people exposed to it. The categories/types used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are as follows:

  • Biotoxins—come from plants or animals
  • Blister Agents/Vesicants—on contact, severely blister the eyes, respiratory tract and skin
  • Blood Agents—affect the body by being absorbed into the blood
  • Caustics (Acids)— burn or corrode people’s skin, eyes, and mucus membranes on contact
  • Choking/Lung/Pulmonary Agents—cause severe irritation or swelling of the respiratory tract
  • Incapacitating Agents—render people unable to think clearly or cause an altered state of consciousness
  • Long-Acting Anticoagulants—prevent blood from clotting properly, which can lead to uncontrolled bleeding
  • Metals—consist of metallic poisons
  • Nerve Agents—highly poisonous chemicals that compromise the nervous system
  • Organic Solvents—damage living tissue by dissolving fats and oils
  • Riot Control Agents/Tear Gas—used by law enforcement for crowd control
  • Toxic Alcohols—damage the heart, kidneys and nervous system
  • Vomiting Agents—cause nausea and vomiting

Before an Attack

  • Build an Emergency Supply Kit. We often discuss the importance of putting together a kit so you’ll have items on hand when you need them. Be sure to include non-perishable food, water, a battery-powered or hand-crank radio, extra flashlights and batteries. Also, include a roll of duct tape, scissors and plastic sheeting to use to cover doors, windows and vents if you need to shelter in place.
  • Make a Family Emergency Plan. In the likely event your family members are not together when disaster strikes, decide in advance how you will contact one another, how you will reassemble and what to do in case of an emergency. Check with your doctor to ensure you and your family’s immunizations are up to date. Children and older adults are particularly vulnerable to biological agents.
  • Consider installing a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter in your furnace return duct.

During an Attack

The first evidence of an attack may be when you notice symptoms of the disease caused by exposure to an agent. During a biological threat, use common sense:

  • Cover Your Nose and Mouth
  • If you become aware of an unusual and suspicious substance, quickly get away and protect yourself.
  • Wear a face mask to reduce spreading germs if you are sick and/or to avoid contracting contagious germs. Practice good hygiene and cleanliness to avoid spreading germs.
  • Watch TV, listen to the radio, or check the Internet for official news. Follow instructions of doctors and other public health officials.
  • If necessary, seek medical assistance.
  • Remove and bag your clothes and personal items.
  • Wash yourself with soap and water.
  • Change your clothes.
  • Follow official instructions, if available, for disposal of contaminated items.
  • Do not assume that any illness is the direct result of an attack. Symptoms of common illnesses may overlap.

After an Attack

The most important thing to do following a chemical attack is to wait for instructions so you know whether you should evacuate or shelter in place. Also pertinent is the psychological responses which may follow a bio-terrorism event.  Associated feelings may include anger, fear and social isolation.

Following any attack, thousands of people who think they were infected may seek unnecessary treatment. Trying to distinguish those who have and haven’t been infected could complicate medical professionals’ ability to treat those who have been exposed and infected—especially when diagnoses are unclear. So make sure your symptoms are severe enough to warrant professional treatment. For details, stay tuned to emergency information on radio, television or online.

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