You’re standing on the second floor of an enclosed shopping mall, overlooking an atrium where hundreds of holiday shoppers stand pressed together around a small stage in the center. A local blues band has just started its set, and you’re getting into the music. The second floor, like the lower level, is crowded with families and tourists, but the sounds and laughter give the mall an upbeat, vibrant atmosphere.
As the band finishes its first song, you hear a loud pop from somewhere in the crowd to your right, followed immediately by another from across the atrium. You look, but don’t see anything out of the ordinary. The music continues. But you hear someone coughing, hard.
And then it happens.
Someone in the atrium below screams. It’s not just one person coughing anymore—it’s 15 or 20, and then, without warning, it’s everyone. The crowd surges and presses against you. You’re unable to move. Shouts echo through the mall. A cloud of thin, colorless vapor drifts along the second floor balcony and seeps through the railing onto the stage below.
You try to move through the crowd to get away, but your hands are shaking and your vision is blurry. You’re finding it very hard to breathe. You see bodies convulsing on the floor of the atrium, but your eyes seem unable to focus. Something is very wrong.
In the next 30 seconds, you’ll either make it outside into clear air, or you’ll end up like the others below.
What are Chemical Weapons?
Chemical weapons are substances or devices that take advantage of the toxicity of various chemical agents to harm or kill humans. Highly toxic compounds dispersed over a wide target area can result in significant casualties, far more than would be possible with conventional weapons. Chemical weapons are therefore classified as weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Though frightening and highly lethal, chemicals aren’t practical as weapons unless they are deployed effectively. Most chemical agents are liquids at room temperature and must be inhaled into the lungs or make contact with skin to produce any effect. As a result, deployment requires heating or agitating the chemical such that it transitions from a liquid to a gas.
Chemical agents can be deployed directly onto a target by spraying, dropping, or dumping, or by placing exposed chemicals in an area and allowing evaporation to draw the toxin into the air. Alternately, chemicals can be sealed within various munitions, including bombs, rockets, and artillery shells designed to release the toxin upon detonation or impact. Chemicals in liquid form can be used to poison water and food.
Types of Chemical Weapons
Nerve Agents: Colorless, odorless, and tasteless, nerve agents are among the most lethal chemical agents in existence. They can be inhaled into the lungs in aerosol form or can pass through the skin or eyes to enter the body. There are a variety of nerve agents, but the most well-known is probably sarin.
Like all nerve agents, sarin attacks the central nervous system and causes muscle spasms that paralyze the lungs, making breathing difficult or impossible. Half a milligram of sarin in liquid or vapor form will kill an average adult. Developed and used experimentally by the Nazis prior to World War II, sarin did not see battlefield deployment until much later, when Saddam Hussein used it against Iranian troops and Kurdish rebels during the First Persian Gulf War. Sarin has been used against civilians as well—on March 20, 1995, the cult Aum Shinrikyo carried out a large sarin gas attack in the Japanese subway system that killed 13 and injured thousands more.
Blistering Agents: These chemicals affect the skin and lungs of victims, causing severe, burning pain and chemical burns. Death can occur due to respiratory distress caused by damage in airways.
Mustard gas, also called sulfur mustard, is perhaps the most infamous blistering agent. In 1916, German scientists Wilhelm Lommel and Wilhelm Stienkopf designed a process that allowed the Imperial German Army to produce mustard gas on a large scale. As a result, mustard gas saw frequent use in World War I. Its painful and deadly effects earned it a fearsome reputation among Allied troops.
Choking Agents: Chemicals designed to kill via suffocation are called choking agents or pulmonary agents. These chemicals cause fluid to build up in the lungs and cause severe throat irritation, coughing, and other symptoms.
Chlorine gas is a highly toxic choking agent, and is known as the first modern chemical weapon to be deployed effectively in combat when it was used by the Nazis against the French at the Second Battle of Ypres in World War I. The French suffered over 6,000 casualties from the gas. Phosgene, another choking agent, was also used extensively during World War I.
Blood Agents: Blood agents are derived from cyanide or arsenic and affect the body through absorption into the blood. Blood agents block the transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide among cells, literally suffocating the body to death at the cellular level. Hydrogen cyanide and arsine gas are two weaponized blood agents.
What to Watch For: Signs & Symptoms
Chemical weapons don’t behave like conventional weapons. A thin, barely-visible gas drifting from the back of an unmarked truck seems at first less threatening than a squad of soldiers wielding assault rifles. But the end result is far more dramatic and terrifying.
Chemicals can be insidious. In the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attacks, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult brought plastic bags filled with liquid sarin into subway cars. The bags were wrapped in newspaper, then discreetly punctured and left sitting on the floor. Witnesses saw nothing out of the ordinary—just a few folded newspapers.
Most chemical attacks begin and end within minutes. Recognizing that an attack is occurring is critical to your survival. The only way to determine whether an attack is occurring is to watch for subtle physical signs and observe the presence of symptoms in yourself or others.
Physical Evidence of a Chemical Attack
During an attack, you may not see, hear, smell, or taste the chemical agent in the air. This is part of what makes chemical weapons so difficult to defend against. Detecting a chemical attack before it occurs or while it’s happening isn’t always straightforward. Watch for the following.
- Any suspicious cloud of mist or vapor, particularly if the cloud is yellowish or greenish in
color and appears heavier than steam.
- Thick vapor emanating from a suspicious source, such as a vehicle, canister, package, or
- Any low-flying aircraft that appears to be “cropdusting” a populated area.
- Oily pools or a sheen of oily liquid on surfaces in the target area. This would typically be observed immediately following certain types of chemical attacks.
“Half a milligram of Sarin in liquid or vapor form will kill an average adult.”
Symptoms of Chemical Poisoning
By far the most reliable and effective way to confirm whether a chemical attack is occurring is to observe the symptoms of the victims. The more familiar chemicals agents, like sarin, VX, chlorine, phosgene, and cyanide, share many of the same symptoms.
- Difficulty breathing
- Blurred vision
- Burning in nose, throat, and eyes
- Nausea and vomiting
Exposure to nerve agents will also result in symptoms like the following:
- Muscles spasms
- Loss of consciousness
Mustard gas is a bit different than the others. With mustard gas, symptoms do not typically appear until two to four hours after exposure. The most familiar symptoms of mustard gas include the following.
- Painful irritation, itching, and blistering of skin
- Irritation and swelling of eyes
- Temporary blindness
- Nausea and vomiting
How to Survive a Chemical Attack
A chemical attack could occur in one of two ways.
Foreign or domestic terrorists could use chemical weapons to carry out specific, isolated attacks against civilians in public places. Shopping malls, transit centers, large festivals and gatherings, skyscrapers, and other enclosed, crowded areas are prime targets for a terror attack. Recent events prove that such an attack is not at all improbable.
A foreign nation could resort to chemical warfare as part of a larger, sustained military conflict against the United States. While much more deadly and destructive, this scenario is less plausible than the threat of terrorist activity on U.S. soil. Nevertheless, the possibility of such an attack exists, and preparation is key to survival.
What’s the real risk of a chemical attack occurring in the United States? Some experts contend that the risk is disturbingly high. In the past several decades, multiple chemical attacks have been carried out by unstable governments and terrorist groups in various parts of the world, notably the Middle East. Russia stockpiled chemical weapons during the Cold War, as did the United States. It’s not at all difficult to imagine some of these weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organizations or rogue nations, like North Korea.
“Shopping malls, transit centers, large festivals and gatherings, skyscrapers, and other enclosed, crowded areas are prime targets for a terror attack.”
An Isolated Terrorist Attack
Depending on the chemical agent and how it’s dispersed, survival may be more a matter of luck than anything else—you’re either terminally exposed within a minute or two, or you’re probably going to be fine. But this doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to prepare. On the contrary, this narrow window for survival makes advanced planning and awareness even more important.
Recognize that a chemical attack is occurring. This is very important. If you fail to assess the situation and recognize what’s happening, you’re less likely to survive.
Don’t panic. When you panic, your breathing speeds up, and breathing fast is the last thing you want to do during a chemical attack. Rapid breathing pulls in more of the surrounding air, increasing your exposure to the chemical agent.
Get out of the area. This is your first and only objective. If the attack occurs indoors, go outside immediately. Break a window if you must. Speed is critical. Depending on the method used to deploy the chemical, fatal exposure can happen within seconds. Your odds of survival increase the faster you move. Once you’re outside, head to high ground. Most chemical vapors—like chlorine gas, sarin gas, and mustard gas, for example—are significantly heavier than air and will travel downhill.
Cut off and dispose of clothing. Remove all clothing that may have come into contact with the gas or liquid, but don’t pull your shirt off over your head—this will allow the chemical to contact the skin of your face. Cut off all clothing and dispose of it by sealing it in plastic bags.
Wash your entire body thoroughly with soap and water. This will remove any chemicals remaining in your body. Don’t skip this step. You won’t always be able to “see” the chemicals on your skin, and the longer the substance is there, the greater your exposure will be. A shower could mean the difference between life and death.
Seek medical attention. Depending on the agent to which you’ve been exposed, full symptoms may not set in for as long as several hours. It’s a good idea to get to a hospital or emergency room immediately, even if you’re feeling fine after the attack. Be aware that in the event of a large attack, local medical centers may be overwhelmed with victims. Don’t let this deter you—if the symptoms do get worse, you’re better off collapsing in a hospital parking lot than in your bedroom at home. If the attack is very small, with just a few people affected, doctors and emergency room staff may not know what to look for or what treatment to provide, so be sure to tell them what happened.
Surviving Sustained Chemical Warfare
Surviving sustained chemical warfare is different than surviving a single isolated chemical attack in a public place, and it requires much more preparation. The degree to which you are prepared in advance will determine whether you live or die.
Vacate the area. As soon as an attack occurs, grab your bug-out bag and gas mask and get to high ground. Don’t try to move upwind or downwind from the point of attack— if you try to go upwind, you’ll pass right through the affected area, and going downwind will only delay the inevitable. Instead, travel in a line perpendicular to wind direction. This is usually the fastest way to get out of range.
If you can’t get out, seal yourself in. If you’re at home when the attack occurs and you’re unable to leave, immediately seal all doors, windows, chimneys, and vents with heavy plastic sheeting and duct tape. Turn off your heater or air conditioner. Your goal is to stop airflow as much as possible until the chemical agent has had time to dissipate or settle. How long this takes will depend on the chemical. Sarin gas, for example, is highly volatile and dissipates rapidly in the air. By contrast, the nerve agent VX is much more stable and can persist on the surface of an object for days or months after contact. Stay indoors and move everyone to the second floor of the house, if possible. Do not hide in your basement, as most chemical agents are heavier than air and will pool in low areas.
Suit up. If you have a gas mask or a hazmat suit, this is the time to use them. Put on your gas mask first—your respiratory system is your greatest vulnerability in a chemical attack, regardless of the agent used. In addition to the hazmat suit, be sure to stock multiple pairs of thick rubber gloves and boots.
Test the air using a chemical agent detector. These devices are relatively compact and not too difficult to obtain. Having one in your home could be the difference between life and death.
Avoid standing water and don’t touch wet, slick, or oily surfaces. Chemical agents can cling to surfaces for very long periods of time. As mentioned above, the chemical VX can stick around for months before gradually evaporating, which means any surface that appears wet or oily could be harboring the deadly agent long after the air is clear.
Stay secure until help arrives or until your chemical agent detector registers that the air is clear. Use your chemical agent detector to test the air every hour until readings return to normal. If you’ve secured yourself in your home and you lack adequate protective gear, don’t go outside until help arrives.
Stories of Survival
Tokyo Subway Attack, 1995
On March 20th, 1995, Yasuo Hayashi boarded the subway at Kita-Senju Station in Tokyo, Japan. He carried an umbrella, a newspaper, and three plastic bags filled with a thin, clear liquid. He had hidden the bags within the folded pages of the newspaper prior to boarding. After taking a seat, he set the newspaper and the three concealed bags on the floor at his feet and waited in silence as the train started on its course, crowded with morning commuters.
As the train approached its second stop, Hayashi stood and deftly jammed the tip of his umbrella into the wrapped bundle. He did this several times, his movements careful and discreet. The train pulled up to Akihabara Station, the doors opened, and Hayashi stepped swiftly out onto the platform. From there, he walked to ground level where a car and driver waited for him and disappeared into the city.
On the train, several minutes passed without event. But as the clear liquid soaked through the newspaper and puddled on the floor, it began to evaporate into the air, gradually drifting through the entire passenger car. Passengers began cough, vomit, and convulse. Other felt dizzy or weak and struggled tobreathe. At the next stop, a passenger kicked the damp newspaper bundle out the door and onto the platform, where the toxin continued to evaporate and spread, but the damage had been done. The train continued on through two more stops as symptoms worsened among the passengers, until finally someone pressed the emergency stop button.
The sickened commuters stumbled out of the train in a panic. Many collapsed on the platform. Transit staff and emergency medical professionals didn’t know what had happened or what aid to provide. The punctured plastic bags remained where they had landed, untouched. No one knew what to do.
At the same time, similar attacks were in progress on four other Tokyo subway cars. The plastic bags contained the nerve agent sarin, one of the deadliest chemicals in existence. Each of the perpetrators used the same method to smuggle the substance aboard and release it—the bags were wrapped in newspaper, placed on the floor, and punctured. In some of the other cars, the bags went undetected for much longer, increasing the damage and delaying cleanup.
In all, 13 people died in the attack and as many as 5,000 were injured.
The attack had been organized and carried out by the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, a secretive organization with millions of dollars in cash and assets and more than a few highly regarded scientists among its members. The cult had produced the sarin from scratch. When Japanese police raided an Aum Shinrikyo compound following the attack, they found a massive stockpile of chemical ingredients. Aum Shinrikyo could have produced enough sarin to kill 4 million people. The motive for the subway incident remains unclear, but it may have been an experiment, a test in preparation for a much larger attack.
Chemical warfare is not a thing of the past. While the international community has almost universally banned chemical weapons, this has not stopped rogue regimes and terrorist groups from employing such weapons to devastating effect. Unfortunately, the threat of a chemical attack today is all too real.
Halabja Massacre, 1988
From 1980 to 1988, Iraq and Iran waged the longest conventional war of the 20th century. Called the “Iran-Iraq War” or the “First Persian Gulf War,” the conflict began when Iraq invaded Iran in an attempt to establish itself as the dominant power in the region. Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, feared that the ongoing Iranian Revolution could spread across the border between the two nations and lead to internal uprisings in Iraq. As Iran wrestled with domestic unrest, he saw an opportunity to strike. The ensuing eight-year conflict would claim the lives of more than 265,000 soldiers and 100,000 to 280,000 civilians.
During the war, Iraq employed chemical weapons to devastating effect on multiple occasions. The CIA estimates that Iraqi chemical weapons killed anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Iranian troops. But one specific attack—the Halabja Massacre—stands out both for its destructive scope and for the nature of its target.
To understand the Halabja Massacre, you must first understand the situation in northern Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam’s fears of internal turmoil were not unfounded. Within Iraq, ethnic Kurds had sided with Iran and established a resistance force to combat Saddam’s troops in a region called Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Iran had begun a successful offensive campaign into this region and had pledged to provide supplies and weapons to the Kurdish rebels. Saddam, who had already put down Kurdish revolts in the area, knew that swift, decisive action was necessary to eliminate this threat.
On March 16, 1988, Iraqi aircraft dropped chemical bombs over residential areas in the Kurdish city of Halabja. It’s not clear which specific chemicals the bombs contained, but CIA analysts believe sarin and VX were the primary agents involved, along with mustard gas. The bombs unleashed clouds of lethal gas that swept through the city and left panic, illness, and death in their wake.
The full extent of the damage is impossible to measure. In the immediate aftermath, the attack left 3,200 to 5,000 people dead and 7,000 to 10,000 others severely injured. The vast majority of those hurt and killed were civilians, including many women and children. Health complications as a result of chemical exposure killed thousands more in the years that followed.
While chemical weapons had already been used many times in the war, the Halabja attack was different. At Halabja, Saddam attacked civilians—citizens of Iraq—in order to quench a growing revolution. The international community later labeled it an act of genocide. Today, the Halabja Massacre remains the largest chemical attack carried out against a civilian target and is considered the single most devastating chemical attack in history, showing the full extent of the damage even a localized chemical attack can cause.
The history of chemical warfare is largely a history of restraint and prohibition. Put simply, no one likes chemical weapons. Chemicals agents are difficult to handle, control, and deploy, and their lethality often puts operators at risk of exposure. The horror and destruction of chemical warfare makes chemicals an unsavory choice even for violent dictators and aggressive regimes.
In World War II, the Nazis refrained from using chemical weapons on the battlefield against Allied troops out of fear that the use of such weapons would provoke a reprisal in kind. The Allies likewise did not use chemical weapons against the Nazis for the same reason. Neither side wanted to go down that road.
At the Hague Conference in 1899, world leaders met to discuss and establish “laws of war” for international conflicts. The attendees passed a proposal banning the use of artillery shells filled with poisonous gasses, the first international chemical weapons ban. More recently, in 1993, the international Chemical Weapons Convention led to a worldwide ban on the development and deployment of chemical weapons, and signatory nations agreed to destroy their chemical stockpiles.
But despite efforts to rid the world of these armaments, chemicals weapons have played a role in many conflicts over the past hundred years.
Unless you plan to spend the rest of your life suited up in full hazmat gear and a gas mask, there’s no way to completely protect yourself from a surprise chemical attack in public. But there are a few critical items you should keep in your home or bug-out bag to protect yourself or your family in the event of a large attack in your area.
Hazmat Suit (Level A)
Nerve agents and blistering agents can inflict injury and death upon contact with your skin. For complete protection, a hazmat suit is essential. But not all hazmat suits are created equal. In the United States, various hazmat suits are ranked according to the level of protection they provide. Make sure you purchase a Level A hazmat suit, as these are the only suits that can protect against chemical vapors. EnviroSafetyProducts.com
Surviving a chemical attack is about reducing or preventing exposure to the weaponized compound. As a result, a simple barrier will provide some protection, and one of the best ways to establish a barrier is with industrial-grade plastic sheeting held in place by duct tape. Keep a stock of plastic sheeting in your home and use it to seal windows, doors, and other opens in the event of an attack. HomeDepot.com
Nerve Agent Antidote (Atropine)
Many chemical attacks involve nerve agents due to their high toxicity and volatility. Atropine, a substance derived from deadly nightshade, can be administered via injection into the thigh to help counterattack the effects of nerve gas poisoning. Atropine can be purchased with a prescription or with authorization from a physician. Another antidote, pralidoxime, is also highly beneficial but is not available to the public.
Chemical Agent Detector
Also called a CWA (Chemical Warfare Agent) Detector or TIC (Toxic Industrial Chemical) Detector, a chemical agent detector is a small device, often handheld, used to detect the presence of nerve and blistering agents in the air. There are many such detectors available. They work by pumping air through a glass detector tube containing a chemical reagent that changes color depending on the presence and concentration of the gas in question.
The most essential and recognizable protective item for defense against chemical attacks is the gas mask. Make sure your gas mask uses a filter containing activated carbon. The mask itself should cover your entire face and head, creating a tight seal against your skin. A gas mask won’t block everything—at best, it will help keep you alive a few hours longer than if you didn’t have it. Even if you’re wearing a gas mask, get out of range of any chemical attack immediately.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide Magazine.