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? What are the first symptoms of contact with a biological agent?
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.
Mick Miller of Atlanta, GA asks: How do you imagine the threat of biological and chemical weapons will affect the look and design of American cities and houses? Will each house have a detector and extinguisher, like they do for fires? Will there be emergency signals on all city blocks and "chemical gas" shelters like we had bomb shelters? Where will these innovations come from-- the federal government or the free market?
Dr. Kathleen Bailey responds:
Mick, I don't really have an answer to your question because it depends on what technologies can be achieved in the next few years to detect CB agents. I believe, however, that it will not be necessary for individual houses to have detectors. The reason is that an attack using CB agents in the atmosphere will probably not be house-specific. Agents, if used, will be spread from a specific point or released along a line. They then drift with the prevailing breeze over all that is in their path.
It may be possible, if necessary, to deploy detectors in public places that may be targets of CB agents. For example, sarin nerve agent was used by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo subways. Detectors located in subways could alert the public when agent use is detected and evacuation plans could proceed. I might add here that many of the same procedures-as well as air handling and other equipment-used for emergencies involving fire and smoke can also useful for responding in event of CBW use.
Larry Johnson responds:
As long as the threat remains an unlikely possibility it will have little effect. Technologies--like air filters and air purifiers--that have application to chemical or biological agents will more likely emerge serendipitously. While chemical and biological weapons lack the punch of nuclear weapons, they pose a similar civil defense problem. Without advance warning you are left with reacting to an incident. The interest in fallout shelters in the fifties faded once people realized they really weren't a viable option. I see little chance of a chemical or biological variant becoming popular.
The Federal Government is now creating a market for technologies that may one day be commercially available to the public. The Feds are putting up money and the private sector is scrambling to provide technologies to meet requirements. The Nunn-Lugar-Domenici bill is putting a lot of emphasis on readiness exercises and helping equip firefighters and police with equipment to deal with a chemical or biological incident. This equipment has dual use and is more likely to be used by HazMat teams responding to a fuel truck that has tipped over on a major highway near a residential area. We are also fortunate that the United States has a pretty robust public health sector and can be mobilized fairly quickly to deal with specific problems.