CBRNE Weapons – What’s in a Name?

The Vocabulary of TerrorBy Joseph Cahill, jcahill@domprep.com Terms are developed in every profession, and emergency management is no exception. In recent years, in fact, many of the terms used by emergency managers have seeped into common usage – and, unfortunately, have frequently been misused, making them a source of confusion rather than clarity. Biological weapons, sometimes referred to as BT, are either disease-causing agents or toxins derived from living things or resulting from a biological process. The focus in many discussions about biological weapons is on disease-causing agents such as plague, anthrax, smallpox, and tularemia – in short, germs of one type or another. Also included in this of weapons, however, are organic toxins such as ricin, which is manufactured from caster beans, and botulin toxin, which is a waste product produced by a bacteria. Chemical weapons are poisonous chemicals that can be used as weapons. These are often broken down into five principal types: choking agents; blood agents; blister agents; nerve agents; and hazardous industrial chemicals. Choking agents kill by displacing oxygen in the environment – for example, chemicals such as chlorine or phosgene gas fill an area, making oxygen unavailable for breathing. 

These chemicals also cause inflammation and damage to the lungs, creating a physical barrier to breathing. Blood agents, such as cyanide, interfere with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, in effect asphyxiating the victim in his or her own tissue, even in the presence of normal levels of oxygen.Blister agents, such as Lewisite or mustard gas, are chemicals that cause severe tissue damage in the form of blistering of the skin, eyes, and/or lungs. Weapons such as sarin and what is called G-agent are weapons that temporarily disconnect the nervous system, including the parts of the system that allow/cause a person to breathe. The term “temporarily” is purposely used here, because if medical care can be provided fast enough to breathe for the victim, and to manage the seizures that nerve agents often cause, the victim has a good chance of survival.Non-lethal or incapacitating agents are chemical weapons such as pepper spray or agent 15 – chemicals that cause non-life-threatening irritation or stupor/confusion. Finally, many materials used in the modern world not only could be used as weapons but also have properties similar to those of chemical weapons. 

These materials also would be attractive materials for terrorists.Radiological and nuclear weapons both contain radioactive materials – i.e., materials that are unstable at The generic term WMD did not become part of the vocabulary until the media started to focus on Iraq, which used chemical weapons against Iran and against some of its own citizens. an atomic level and therefore decompose, giving off radiation. The focus of much of the nation’s civil-defense planning in the 1950s and 1960s was to prepare for attacks by another nation (usually the USSR or Communist China) using nuclear weapons. Radiation and nuclear weapons use the radioactive nature of some materials as the energy source for a massive explosion. The emergence of stateless terrorists on the global scene in recent years has led to discussions centered on the radiological dispersion device (RDD) – otherwise known as the dirty bomb. Despite its inelegant (and imprecise) name, the dirty bomb is really just a normal explosive with radioactive materials added, making it a weapon designed to damage and contaminate a relatively large area. The distinction between the dirty bomb and a true nuclear weapon is the source of the energy, which in the case of the RDD comes from a conventional explosive.

Finally, conventional explosives are simply just that: materials that cause a detonation or explosion – i.e., a rapid release of gas under pressure. A relatively large number of common-place materials can be and have been used as explosives. Among them are some substances that would not ordinarily be considered dangerous but can and would explode if they are tightly contained while the materials burn. The Internationalization of Acronyms A variety of terms have been used, and shortened into acronyms, in various attempts to group all of these weapons into a single all-encompassing term. 

The U.S. military used the acronym NBC to describe nuclear, biological, and/or chemical weapons; a somewhat similar acronym, ABC, was used to describe atomic, biological, and chemical weapons.  A somewhat more generic term WMD – Weapons of Mass Destruction – has been common within the response community for a decade or more, but did not become part of the national vocabulary until the media spotlight started to focus on Iraq, which under Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons both against Iran and against some of its own citizens. 

More recently, the term CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiation, nuclear, and explosives) has become more commonly used in emergency-management circles, primarily because it can be used to describe all of the threats mentioned above._________________________Links for additional information:Generalhttp://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdfhttp://dictionary.laborlawtalk.com/weapons of mass destructionhttp://www.phsource.us/PH/CBRNE/index.htmChemical http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/emres/chemagent.htmlhttp://www.bt.cdc.gov/chemical/Biological http://www.bt.cdc.gov/bioterrorism/Radiological/nuclear http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/http://dictionary.laborlawtalk.com/dirty_bomb

Joseph Cahill
Joseph Cahill

Joseph Cahill is the director of medicolegal investigations for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He previously served as exercise and training coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and as emergency planner in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management. He also served for five years as citywide advanced life support (ALS) coordinator for the FDNY – Bureau of EMS. Before that, he was the department’s Division 6 ALS coordinator, covering the South Bronx and Harlem. He also served on the faculty of the Westchester County Community College’s paramedic program and has been a frequent guest lecturer for the U.S. Secret Service, the FDNY EMS Academy, and Montefiore Hospital.



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