Biological weapons and the use of bioterror is one of the greatest terrorist threats we face. A biological attack is the deliberate release of germs or other biological substances that can make you sick. Many agents must be inhaled, enter through a cut in the skin or be eaten to make you sick. Some biological agents, such as anthrax, do not cause contagious diseases.Others, like the smallpox virus, can result in diseases you can catch from other people.
If There Is A Biological ThreatUnlike an explosion, a biological attack may or may not be immediately obvious. While it is possible that you will see signs of a biological attack, as was sometimes the case with the anthrax mailings, it is perhaps more likely that local health care workers will report a pattern of unusual illness or there will be a wave of sick people seeking emergency medical attention.
You will probably learn of the danger through an emergency radio or TV broadcast, or some other signal used in your community. You might get a telephone call or emergency response workers may come to your door. In the event of a biological attack, public health officials may not immediately be able to provide information on what you should do. It will take time to determine exactly what the illness is, how it should be treated, and who is in danger. However, you should watch TV, listen to the radio, or check the Internet for official news including the following:
- Are you in the group or area authorities consider in danger?
- What are the signs and symptoms of the disease?
- Are medications or vaccines being distributed?
- Who should get them?
- Where should you seek emergency medical care if you become sick?
If you become aware of an unusual and suspicious release of an unknown substance nearby, it doesn’t hurt to protect yourself. Quickly get away. Cover your mouth and nose with layers of fabric that can filter the air but still allow breathing.
Examples include two to three layers of cotton such as a t-shirt, handkerchief or towel. Otherwise, several layers of tissue or paper towels may help. Wash with soap and water and contact authorities.
Symptoms and Hygiene
At the time of a declared biological emergency, if a family member becomes sick, it is important to be suspicious. Do not automatically assume, however, that you should go to a hospital emergency room or that any illness is the result of the biological attack. Symptoms of many common illnesses may overlap. Use common sense, practice good hygiene and cleanliness to avoid spreading germs, and seek medical advice.
Responding To An Attack
Aside from their common lethality, there is no one size fits all when it comes to describing the types and effects of possible chemical or biological agents. Chemical agents are generally liquids, often aerosolized, and most have immediate effects or are delayed for a few hours. Many chemical agents have a unique odor and color. Biological agents differ in that the effects are delayed, often for days.
The effects of toxins, such as botulism toxin, occur typically in less than a day. Living biological agents, such as anthrax or plague, generally take 2-5 days for symptoms to appear. Biological agents have no odor or color and can be in either liquid or powder form. There are many different potential chemical and biological agents that a terrorist could use as a weapon, but we can make the following broad generalizations:
- Although food or water contamination or absorption through the skin are possible attack routes, most experts agree that inhalation of chemical or biological agents is the most likely and effective means.
- Protection of breathing airways is therefore the single most important factor in a situation where chemical or biological agents may be present.Many likely agents are heavier than air and would tend to stay close to the ground. This dictates an upward safe-haven strategy.
Basic decontamination procedures are generally the same no matter what the agent.
Thorough scrubbing with large amounts of warm soapy water or a mixture of 10 parts water to 1 part bleach (10:1) will greatly reduce the possibility of absorbing an agent through the skin.
If water is not available, talcum powder or flour are also excellent means of decontamination of liquid agents. Sprinkle the flour or powder liberally over the affected skin area, wait 30 seconds, and brush off with a rag or gauze pad. (Note: the powder absorbs the agent so it must be brushed off thoroughly. If available, rubber gloves should be sued when carrying out this procedure.)
Generally, chemical agents tend to present an immediately noticeable effect, whereas many biological agents will take days before symptoms appear. In either case, medical attention should be sought immediately, even if exposure is thought to be limited.
Most chemical and biological agents that present an inhalation hazard will break down fairly rapidly when exposed to the sun, diluted with water, or dissipated in high winds.
No matter what the agent is or its concentration, evacuation from the area of attack is always advisable unless you are properly equipped with an appropriate breathing device and protective clothing or have access to collective protection.
Warning Signs of an Attack or Incident
A chemical or biological attack or incident won’t always be immediately apparent given the fact that many agents are odorless and colorless and some cause no immediately noticeable effects or symptoms. Be alert to the possible presence of agents. Indicators of such an attack include:
- Droplets of oily film on surfaces
- Unusual dead or dying animals in the area
- Unusual liquid sprays or vapors
- Unexplained odors (smell of bitter almonds, peach kernels, newly mown hay or green grass)
- Unusual or unauthorized spraying in the area
- Victims displaying symptoms of nausea, difficulty breathing, convulsions, disorientation, or patterns of illness inconsistent with natural disease.
- Low-lying clouds or fog unrelated to weather; clouds of dust; or suspended, possibly colored, particles.
- People dressed unusually (long-sleeved shirts or overcoats in the summertime) or wearing breathing protection particularly in areas where large numbers of people tend to congregate, such as subways or stadiums
What to Do In Case of Attack
Protection of breathing airways is the single most important thing a person can do in the event of a chemical or biological incident or attack.
In most cases, absent a handy gas mask, the only sure way to protect an airway is to put distance between you and the source of the agent. While evacuating the area, cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief, coat sleeve or any piece of cloth to provide some moderate means of protection. Other basic steps one can take to avoid or mitigate exposure to chemical or biological agents include:
- Stay alert for attack warning signs. Early detection enhances survival.
- Move upwind from the source of the attack.
- If evacuation from the immediate area is impossible, move indoors (if outside) and upward to an interior room on a higher floor. Remember many agents are heavier than air and will tend to stay close to the ground.
- Once indoors, close all windows and exterior doors and shut down air conditioning or heating systems to prevent circulation of air.
- Cover your mouth and nose. If gas masks are not available, use a surgical mask or a handkerchief. An improvised mask can be made by soaking a clean cloth in a solution of 1 tablespoon of baking soda in a cup of water. While this is not highly effective, it may provide some protection.
- Cover bare arms and legs and make sure any cuts or abrasions are covered or bandaged.
- If splashed with an agent, immediately wash it off using copious amounts of warm soapy water or a diluted 10:1 bleach solution.
- Letters from unknown sources should first be screened by security personnel. If opened, letters allegedly containing anthrax or another toxin should be handled carefully. Note if there was a puff of dust or particles from the envelope when it was opened and be sure to report that when assistance arrives. Carefully place such a letter and its envelope in a sealed plastic pouch. Thoroughly wash face and hands with warm soapy water before calling for assistance.
- If circumstances dictate, plan and prepare a chemical/biological safe-haven in your residence using guidelines listed in this guide.
- At the office, familiarize yourself in advance with established emergency procedures and equipment at your post. See your regional or post security officer for details.
- If in a car, shut off outside air intake vents and roll up windows if no gas has entered the vehicle. Late model cars may provide some protection from toxic agents.
In any case of suspected exposure to chemical or biological agents, no matter what the origin, medical assistance should be sought as soon as possible, even if no symptoms are immediately evident.
- Preparing a Safe-Haven In some remote but possible scenarios, an entire city or neighborhood could become endangered by lethal gas. If conditions at your post make this a possibility, you may want to plan and prepare a sealed chemical/biological safe-haven at your residence as follows:
Choosing a Safe-Haven Room
- Select an inner room on an upstairs floor with the least number of windows and doors.
- Choose a large room with access to a bathroom and preferably with a telephone.
- Avoid choosing rooms with window or wall air conditioners; they are more difficult to seal.
- Shut down all window and central air and heating units.
- Seal The Room.