Is the U.S. prepared for a chemical
or biological weapons attack?
February 11, 1998
in this forum:
Is disarmament better than expensive defenses? Would bombing weapons sites in Iraq release dangerous agents into the atmosphere ? How much information is being disseminated via the Internet? How will this threat affect the design of cities and homes?
April 22, 1997
President Clinton wants the Senate to ratify the Chemicals Weapons Treaty, a document that that would ban some of the world's most dreaded killing agents.
November 11, 1996
Were U.S. soldiers exposed to chemical weapons during the Gulf War?
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of military.
Pamela of Brooklyn, NY asks:
How can a person tell that they have been infected-what are the very first symptoms? How will we know whether or not an attack is on its way? What can we do if this does occur? Where is the safest place to go?
I really appreciate your answers to each of my questions. This issue creates great anxiety for me.
Larry Johnson responds:
Chemical agents have a different effect on people than biological agents. Unfortunately, there is no technology that can provide you with an early warning that you are about to become a victim. Biological agents--like anthrax, botulism or tularemia--while more lethal are no different from the other bacteria and viruses that can infect our bodies. You can be on a plane and exposed to the flu without realizing that you have been infected. It is only later when enotoxins in your body develop that you begin feeling the physical symptoms. Chemical agents, particularly nerve agents, act much quicker. Yet, many are odorless and colorless and, if you were exposed, the result would be harmful.
In my experience governments rarely receive advance warning about impending attacks. The odds are we would be unwitting victims--in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is no safe place to go, but I would comfort you with the knowledge that such threats, while possible, are not likely. Let's recall that Saddam Hussein, although he had weapons of mass destruction, did not use them during the Gulf War. He is a thug and has murdered members of his own family. Yet, he is shrewd and not suicidal. He recognizes that using such weapons against a stronger foe could lead to his ultimate destruction. I think you have more to fear from the flu than from a terrorist attack.
Dr. Kathleen Bailey responds:
Pamela, there are literally hundreds of diseases that can be used as weapons. Some are contagious, some not. BW agents can attack us, our food animals, or our crops. They can be deadly, or just cause temporary effects. Thus, it is impossible to answer your question about symptoms because it would depend on which agent had been used.
Anthrax is one of the most likely agents to be used as a weapon. It is a bacterium whose spores, when inhaled, cause fever and fatigue after 1 to 6 days. After 2-3 days, respiratory distress and chest pains begin. This is followed by shock and death within 24-36 hours. The disease can be treated effectively with antibiotics, but only if treatment is begun a day or less after exposure. (This is why creating detectors is so crucial. Otherwise, how will be know that people have been exposed and need immediate treatment?) There is an effective vaccine, but it is currently only available to the military and to people whose trades expose them to anthrax-such as tanners or others who may work with infected animal skins. (My personal opinion is that the vaccine should be made available to anyone who wants it.)
Currently, it is unlikely that we will know that a BW attack is underway unless the perpetrator tells us-presumably to maximize the terror effect. Otherwise, there are no deployed detectors in locations which would alert us of an attack. In fact, such detectors are in development, and not yet deployable.
If I were warned in advance of a BW attack, I would stay indoors, turn off all equipment that would bring in outside air, and cover my nose and mouth with a mask. The ones that Israeli and other Middle East citizens are receiving are the best, but those are not readily available in the U.S. A surgical mask or a makeshift cloth covering can be very effective. The point is to try to keep from breathing the BW agent. Over time, depending on the weather and winds, the agent will dissipate, settle, or be destroyed.