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 luggage.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.