- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

(This is one in a five-part series on steps ordinary citizens should take — and avoid — to prepare for several types of terrorist attack. The series originally ran on Sept. 6, 2002)

Common sense is more helpful than expensive equipment for the average citizen when it comes to responding to a terrorist attack using chemical agents or even a simple accident at a chemical plant, officials and medical specialists told United Press International.

Chemical warfare falls into three basic categories, according to the Federation of American Scientists. The compounds can affect the central nervous system, skin, mucous membranes or the lungs.

Nerve agents, with names like sarin and VX, disrupt the chemical signals between nerve cells, eventually stopping the heart and respiratory system, according to the FAS. Symptoms of nerve agent exposure include pinpoint pupils, extreme runny nose or sweating, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and facial or muscular twitching. Nerve agents are inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Blister agents, which are variations of the infamous "mustard gas" of World War I, incapacitate people but usually fall short of killing them. Symptoms might be delayed by several hours and include painful itching of the eyes and conjunctivitis, red and itchy skin or blisters, and a burning throat followed by a dry and then phlegmy cough.

Choking agents can kill by blocking the lungs' ability to add oxygen to the blood by causing inflammation and fluid buildup in lung tissue. The common water purification chemical chlorine is included in this group, but the most dangerous is phosgene, which caused 80 percent of gas fatalities in World War I. Although symptoms such as coughing, choking, nausea, vomiting and headache are likely, they can be delayed several hours or be absent until serious breathing difficulty arises.

All types of chemical warfare materials either can be persistent or transitory. Vapor-based forms will dissipate over time and move with the wind. Some agents, such as phosgene, are heavier than air and will collect in low places, such as basements, so moving to hilltops or the upper floors of an uncontaminated building is helpful. Liquids can contaminate surfaces for extended periods.

Indications of an ongoing chemical attack vary depending on the agent being used, said C. Gary Hurst, chief of the Chemical Casualty Care Division at the Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense in Aberdeen, Md.

Some mustard agents do indeed smell like mustard — even onions or garlic — Hurst said. Some choking agents, such as chlorine, have a very distinctive and pungent odor and can produce noticeable clouds. Several chemicals also can discolor foliage.

Nerve agents, on the other hand, are odorless and colorless. Hurst told UPI that does not mean they can be released without notice, however. Because the chemicals affect anything with a central nervous system, unusual animal activity can raise a red flag.

"If suddenly there were a lot of mice or birds acting funny or sick or staggering around, that could be an indication," Hurst said. "But the most likely one would be insects or birds just dropping out of the sky."

People should take care, however, before taking human distress to mean a chemical attack has begun, according to Amy Smithson, director of the Henry L. Stimson Center's Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project in Washington, D.C. The best signal is if many people suffer the same symptoms simultaneously, she said.

Several sources said official alerts via radio and TV are the most likely way people would learn of an attack.

If an attack occurs outdoors, the best course of action is to hold your breath for at least 30 seconds as you move away from any possible source, at right angles to the wind or upwind of the source, and head indoors, Hurst said. Once inside, close windows, chimney flues and any other air inlets, set central heating systems to recirculate air and turn on a radio to listen for official instructions.

It is important for both the media and the public to avoid seeking multiple sources for those instructions, according to Bruce Baughman, director of the Office of Preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"What we want (the media) to do is talk to somebody currently in the administration that is the resident expert, giving the government line on what we ought to be doing as far as protective action guides," Baughman said during a recent discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "In many of our exercises, we (worked) with the FBI, with the HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) and other key agencies, along with the state and local government, to form a joint information center to make sure that the right person was talking to the news media about the right topic."

If your clothing comes into contact with what might be a chemical agent, remove it before entering a building, Hurst told UPI. If at all possible, double-bag the contaminated items for later investigation, he said, because they could provide evidence of what agent was used.

"If you got exposed to some liquid agent, the smartest thing you could do is jump in the shower," Hurst said. "If it's an oily substance, take a bar of soap and wash (gently) until the cows come home."

Under no circumstances, however, should civilians consider trying to decontaminate their clothes or other belongings, said Air Force Lt. Col. Fred Hoon, commander of the Colorado National Guard's 8th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team in Aurora.

"Even on our team, we use different decon approaches for different agents, so if people are involved in some way, we put them through a decon sequence," Hoon told UPI. "Probably the worst thing they can do is take it on themselves."

That advice extends to pets outside during a possible chemical attack, Hurst said, because decontaminating fur can be especially difficult.

"I've talked to military veterinarians about this," Hurst said. "Even if you're spraying them and washing them down, they'll shake and spray all over the place, so unfortunately Fido needs to stay in the yard, and the cat too."

Because many chemical agents dissipate quickly, it is difficult to say in advance what kind of evacuations might be necessary, Baughman said. Studies dealing with civilian responses to weapons of mass destruction are of little help at the moment, he said at the CSIS event.

"Not since the late '70s, when we had a crisis relocation program, did we even start that process, and those weren't very good plans," Baughman said. "We are starting to look at putting evacuation plans in place, using some of the data and hazard analysis data that we have for hurricane planning."

One of the most dangerous tactics people can follow in trying to prepare for an attack is to purchase known or supposed remedies for chemical agents. For example, the compound atropine can counteract the lethal effects of nerve agents, Hurst said, but it is itself a potential health hazard. The military expects some casualties from atropine use during suspected chemical attacks, even among soldiers regularly trained in using set doses, he said.

"(In the absence of nerve agent) atropine can cause blurred vision, you'll be vulnerable to heat intolerance, your saliva could dry up and you can't talk, and with a large dose you can have hallucinations," Hurst said. "It takes us the better part of an hour to explain all this in (lectures at our facility)."

Gas masks are another dubious choice when considering preparation for a possible attack, several sources told UPI. Not only would they have to be carried constantly to be available at the proper moment, but using them also involves much more than simply pulling one over your head, Hurst said.

"The masks are worthless unless they're properly maintained and you know they're in good working order," Hurst said. "The charcoal (filter) is degraded by moisture in the atmosphere. The seals on the filters (can be harmful); in Israel several children suffocated when people thought there was a chemical attack, because the seal hadn't been removed."

When it comes to being prepared for a possible chemical attack, Hoon said, the guidelines are much the same as being ready for a natural disaster. To spend money on exotic measures that likely will be in the wrong place at the wrong time is to give terrorists a measure of victory, he said.

"Make sure you've got a radio, a first aid kit, three days' worth of canned food," Hoon told UPI. "You've got the water in your water heater, and with all that, you've taken precautions against 95 percent of the things that could happen. The best thing you can do is exercise common sense — our minds are the best defense we have against getting into trouble."

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