Regardless of what they are called–WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) or CBRNEs (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive weapons)–the killing tools available today are extremely lethal, and, are not limited to the military forces of nation states but also available to an increasingly large number of terrorist groups. This is troubling enough, however, in the case of chemical weapons, equivalent agents can be purchased from materials available at the local hardware or farming-supplies store or in local industry. Chemical warfare agents have been in the forefront of community as well as national disaster planning since the 1995 Sarin attack by Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that released Sarin into a crowded Tokyo subway at rush hour. This real-life terrorist incident quickly became the model scenario for cities (and nations) around the world developing plans to cope with a chemical attack.
These scenario begin with the use of chemical weapons against a large group of civilians present in an everyday “mass gathering”–e.g., at a movie theater, attending a sports event, in church–or using a subway, train, or other means of mass transportation.
Planning, Practicing, and Training
To be effective, the preparations to cope with such an attack must necessarily begin long before the attack itself. The first responders assigned responsibility for dealing with the attack must have participated, at a minimum, in an awareness-level focused on WMD and/or CBRNE scenarios.
That is only the start, though. Plans also have to be in place for the mass decontamination of victims. Stocks of antidotes to a broad range of chemical agents have to be purchased, stored, checked periodically, and made quickly available on short or no notice. A communications, coordination, command, and control plan involving all elements and layers of the local first-responder community–the EMS, fire and police departments, for example, nearby hospitals and clinics, the mayor’s office, even the media–has to be developed, discussed, and distributed. And it has to be taken seriously. This means that on-hands training sessions–several of them, ongoing–also will be required, and attendance/participation must be made mandatory.
All of the preceding is now standard operating procedure in a number of communities heeding the federal government’s warnings about the possibility of a terrorist attack involving WMDs or CBRNEs. But those preparedness plans focused on the use of chemical weapons address only part of the problem–the assumption that chemical weapons would be used. Probably only a few of those plans focus on the equal or perhaps greater possibility that nonmilitary–i.e., industrial–chemicals might instead be the terrorists’ weapon of choice. Chlorine gas is used every day for water treatment, cyanide is used for metal plating, and a host of other deadly poisons are used in or transported through the average community every day. In fact, according to EPICURE (the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) and section112(r) of the Clean Air Act there are almost 1,800 chemicals routinely used in the United States that are classified as hazardous, extremely hazardous, or toxic and/or that must be reported if released.
These industrial chemicals, which pose a real and present danger to the public, are a major temptation to terrorists. As noted above, most if not all of them are readily available for purchase by any legitimate business–or they can be stolen from their legitimate users. By comparison, chemical-warfare agents are tightly controlled and either have to be purchased, manufactured–an expensive and complex process, usually–or smuggled into the country and to their intended target.
The Ingenious Use of Everyday Artifacts
As horrific as the Tokyo subway incident was, the number of dead (12) or critically ill victims was relatively low–primarily because of the almost ludicrously ineffective “delivery system” used by Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out its attack by popping a balloon filled with Sarin. Effective dispersal is not just a simple matter of pouring the chemical on the ground, or throwing it into the air; it takes technology.
More recently, the crash of a Norfolk Southern freight train in Graniteville, South Carolina, released chlorine gas into a modestly populated area, killing eight people. Consider the difference in population of these two communities, Tokyo had a population of 11,500,000 in 1995 and Graniteville, SC had a population of 7,000 in 2000 (The most recent year the census was taken). When the numbers of dead and injured are compared in this context, the magnitude of the Graniteville crash pulls into clearer focus.
While the amount of chemicals involved in the South Carolina crash was dramatically greater than the amount of Sarin used by Aum Shinrikyo, it was not an unusual amount of chlorine to be transported by rail. As a result it is a volume of chlorine that would be available to terrorist should they get control of this portion of the chemical-transportation infrastructure. Although still being investigated, the Graniteville incident appears to have been purely accidental, and is mentioned here only to illustrate the magnitude of incident that could be generated by an attack on the nation’s chemical infrastructure.
One of the principal lessons learned from the 9/11 terrorist attacks is that terrorists can be ingenious in using normal components and artifacts in the everyday world to achieve horrendous results. Only Tom Clancy, some specialists in the national intelligence community (i.e., the FBI and the CIA), and a few world- counter-terrorist experts in the private sector–Neil Livingstone, for example, in a late-1990s article in the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine–ever envisioned that a commercial airliner could be used as a weapon. A fallout benefit of preparing for a terrorist attack using industrial chemicals is that it also helps first responders prepare to deal with the accidental or unintentional spill or release of those same chemicals.
Any discussion of terrorists’ use of chemical weapons starts an inevitable spiral of fear. The images of dead Kurdish children, killed by Saddam Hussein’s troops in March of 1988, have made the specter of chemical warfare one that looms over the American consciousness–and for that very reason makes chemical weapons an even more attractive option for terrorists. But the fear of chemical weapons also can be used to divert attention, and funds, from other types of terrorist attacks.
Preparation: The Most Effective Antidote
For reasons not fully explained by DHS, the preparation of defenses against industrial hazardous materials has been specifically excluded from the list of authorized expenses for many of the department’s major domestic-preparedness grants. This preparation is invaluable to the protection of the average American community.
Pre-identification of potential chemical hazards is one of the keys to reducing risks, because in this case forewarned truly is forearmed. From a medical emergency planning perspective, the knowledge that a local business or laboratory possesses specific toxic chemicals for legitimate use facilitates the preparation of defenses against accidental (or intentional) release.
Such preparation can take that many forms, including staff in-service training–for which the owner of the business using the chemical might be willing, if only as a helpful exercise in public relations, to provide and/or pay for the technical experts carrying out the training. There are well-known antidotes for some chemicals that can be purchased if the threat is high enough–e.g., cyanide, for which there are even commercially available antidote kits. Plans also have to be in place for the mass decontamination of victims. A communications, coordination, command, and control plan involving all elements and layers of the local first-responder community–the fire and police departments, for example, nearby hospitals and clinics, the mayor’s office, even the media–has to be developed, discussed, and distributed. And it has to be taken seriously. This means that on-hands training sessions–several of them, probably–also will be required, and attendance/participation must be made mandatory.
These are the same steps listed above as the recommendations for preparation for a chemical weapons attack. One of the most important lessons to be learned is not that there are deadly chemicals innocently available in any of the nation’s communities, or that chemical weapons could be in the hands of America’s enemies, but that the steps for preparation to deal with one are not significantly different from the preparations for the other.
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.