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The Basics of Chemical Weaponry
A chemical weapon utilizes a manufactured chemical to incapacitate, harm, or kill people. Strictly speaking, a chemical weapon relies on the physiological effects of a chemical, so agents used to produce smoke or flame, as herbicides, or for riot control, are not considered to be chemical weapons. Although certain chemical weapons can be used to kill large numbers of people (i.e., as weapons of mass destruction), other weapons are designed to injure or terrorize people. In addition to having potentially horrific effects, chemical weapons are of great concern because they are cheaper and easier to manufacture and deliver than nuclear or biological weapons.
Types of Weapons
The earliest chemical weapon wasn't an esoteric chemical concoction. During World War I, chlorine gas was used as a chemical weapon, released in massive clouds by the German army to cause lung damage and terror downwind of its release. Modern chemical weapons include the following types of agents:
- Choking Agents (e.g., phosgene, chlorine)
- Blister Agents (e.g., nitrogen mustard, Lewisite)
- Nerve Agents (e.g., Tabun, Sarin, VX)
How Chemical Weapons Work
Chemical agents may be released as tiny droplets, similar to the action of a bug bomb used to release insecticide. For a chemical weapon to cause harm, it must come in contact with the skin or mucous membranes, be inhaled, or be ingested. The activity of the chemical agent depends on its concentration. In other words, below a certain level of exposure, the agent won't kill. Below a certain level of exposure, the agent won't cause harm.
The best protective measure you can take against chemical weapons is to become educated about them. Most of us don't have gas masks or atropine (an injectible used in cases of nerve agent exposure) and won't be on a battlefield, so the recommendations presented here are intended for the general public.
- Don't PanicYes, chemical weapons are more likely to be used in a terrorist scenario than nuclear or biological weapons. However, there are several steps you can take to minimize exposure and protect yourself in the event you encounter a chemical agent. Realistically speaking, you are more likely to witness an accidental chemical spill than a chemical attack. Your best defense is to face the situation with a level head.
- Seek High GroundChemical agents are denser than air. They sink to low-lying areas and will follow wind/weather patterns. Seek the highest story of a building or the top of a natural land formation.
- Seek Open Spaces or Seek a Self-Contained Air SupplyFrom the point of view of a terrorist, a heavily populated area is a more attractive target than a sparsely populated region. Therefore, the threat of a chemical attack is lessened in rural areas.
- In the event of an attack, there is some sense in isolating your air supply. Most chemical agents disperse after a certain amount of time (a notable exception is VX, which is designed to persist), so refraining from contacting exposed air may be a good protective measure.
- Use Your SensesHow do you know if you have been exposed to a chemical agent? You may not be able to see or smell one. In their pure forms, most chemical weapon agents are clear liquids. Impure chemicals may be yellowish liquids. Most are odorless and tasteless, but some have a slightly sweet or fruity smell. Skin irritation, respiratory distress, and gastrointestinal upset all may signal exposure to a chemical agent. However, if you don't die within minutes, you probably won't die at all. Therefore, if you believe you have been exposed to a chemical agent, wait until you feel secure before seeking out medical attention (but do seek it out).
- Use Common SenseHave a radio (with batteries) and keep up with the news. Pay attention to civil defense advisories and think before acting.