Emergency Preparedness and Response
- A fact sheet for public health professionals and the
general public to understand chemical terrorism and prepare for accidents
involving hazardous chemicals.
(for a printable version of this fact
sheet, click here)
What is chemical terrorism?
Chemical terrorism is the intentional use of a toxic chemical to scare,
injure, or kill people. Although rare, chemical attacks have occurred in
the past. In 1995 the nerve gas Sarin was released in a Japanese subway.
This attack killed several people and sickened hundreds more.
A terrorist could use a toxic chemical to poison the air, water or food
supply. His methods may be as simple as opening a container in an enclosed
space, spraying toxins on a food supply, or poisoning a water reservoir.
What should I do if I suspect a chemical attack/event?
Evacuate the area if it is safe to do so.
Do not touch or remove anything.
Call 911 and
be ready to provide:
name, agency and telephone number
- The type, date and time of incident
- The facility name and/or location of incident
- Any other pertinent information
- Follow first respondersí instructions about what to do and where
- If you suspect that you have been contaminated with a chemical or
are experiencing symptoms that cause you to believe you may have been
exposed to a chemical you may obtain further advice via the Stateís
Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
How can I prevent a chemical attack/event?
Be aware of your surroundings. Call 911 or your local law enforcement
to report suspicious or unusual activity.
How will I recognize a chemical attack/event?
Terrorists rarely warn their intended victims prior to an attack. An
attack may not result in mass casualties and there may be no obvious signs
such as odors or visible chemicals in the area. The first indication that
an attack has occurred may be an unusual number of sick people or animals
in a localized area.
What is the difference between harmful chemical and biological
Most chemical agents cause immediate symptoms. Biological agents cause
illnesses that onset after an incubation period of several hours or days.
People sickened by biological agents may be dispersed over a large area
before they develop any symptoms of illness. Once sickened, they may
transmit the illness to others causing a cascade of illnesses in a
widespread population. Illnesses caused by chemicals cannot be transmitted
to another person.
Some other important items to remember about chemical attacks/events
Symptoms such as burning eyes, cough, nausea, or disorientation are
There may be obvious physical signs such as an unusual colored
residue, a distinct odor. Look for dead plants, insects, and animals in
Some chemicals alter your sense of smell. Donít assume that the
chemical has dissipated if you no longer notice an odor.
Animals, children, and the elderly may be more sensitive than healthy
How can I prepare for a possible attack/event?
If you are a public health official, study your countyís emergency
plan and be sure that you understand your role. In the event of an attack,
you may be called on to organize people and materials in accordance with
that plan. You may also be asked to interview victims or provide backup to
"first responders" and medical staff. The general public should
be aware of the terrorism threat and be prepared to evacuate in an
emergency by becoming familiar with exits and evacuation routes.
Who are the first responders?
"First responders" are specially trained hazardous materials
(HAZMAT) teams, fire fighters, police, and emergency medical technicians.
They will control access to the affected area(s), prevent the spread of
contaminants, find and treat the injured, and collect criminal evidence.
What should I look for if I suspect an attack/event?
In the environment, watch for an unusual number of sick or dead
animals, lack of insect activity, or dead vegetation. An acrid or sweet
odor, the presence of an oily film on surfaces or a low-hanging foggy
cloud can be signs that a chemical agent has been released.
In humans, look for an unusual number of symptoms or deaths in a small
area. Symptoms can range from skin irritation and blistering, to nausea,
disorientation, coughing, convulsions and death. In an outdoor setting,
the injured are likely to be downwind from the release.
What are the health effects of hazardous chemicals?
Chemicals favored for use by terrorists can cause a wide range of
symptoms. While most chemicals cause immediate symptoms, delayed effects
are possible. A terrorist may release more than one chemical in an attack.
For more information, see CDCís list of chemical agents: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/Agent/agentlistchem.asp
For more information
For health related information, contact the Wisconsin Division of
Public Health, Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health, 1 West Wilson St, Box 2659,
Madison, WI 53701-2659, (608) 266-1120.
Back to Environmental Health
October 29, 2012