On an unusually warm December 1984 night at the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant, the safety equipment on Tank 610, under pressure from 42 tons of methylisocyanate (MIC), failed.
A violent exothermic reaction occurred, driving the temperature inside the tank to over 392 degrees Fahrenheit, which forced the emergency venting of nearly 30 metric tons of MIC.
Over the span of 45 minutes, clouds of toxic gas made up of many different chemicals roiled through the shanty towns southeast of the plant. Over 500,000 unprepared and unsuspecting people in and around Bhopal, India, were affected by the gas, and 3,787 were killed. Another 8,000 died in the following week, while approximately 3,900 suffered (and still suffer today) severe and permanent disabling injuries.
No matter where you live, the next Bhopal disaster could be in your backyard. The Environmental Protection Agency keeps tabs on roughly 12,000 facilities that store one or more of 140 deadly chemicals that could potentially cause fatalities to their surrounding communities.
According to a Congressional report in 2012, more than 2,500 of these facilities are located so close to dense populations that the worse-case scenarios could affect up to one million people each if a catastrophic chemical spill or a leak could happen.
WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW
Your chances of surviving will be affected by where you are located in relationship to the point of the attack and the type of attack. But since you have no idea when such a chemical attack or accident will happen, there is never a better time to prepare than right now.
Assembling the right gear for the emergency you expect is a difficult thing to consider, but fortunately, most of the general gear can be used in almost every disaster imaginable. Similar to being prepared for a pandemic or a virus outbreak, there are a few things you’ll want to include in your cache of equipment in the event of a chemical spill or terrorist attack.
Because you’ll want to keep your skin as covered as possible, include thick rubber gloves and boots. If you have the means, obtain gas masks and nuclear, biological, chemical (a.k.a. NBC) suits to completely protect you. Pack a couple of gallons of bleach and a few boxes of baking soda to act as cleaning/disinfecting agents and absorbents for spills.
IS A CHEMICAL ATTACK HAPPENING?
Chemical attacks entail the dispersal of chemical vapors, aerosols, liquids or solids, and individuals are affected by inhaling these or being exposed through their eyes and skin. Terrorists could use any of numerous chemical agents in an attack, including both industrial chemicals and chemical warfare agents, most of which are designed to be undetectable to the human senses. Being mindful of your surroundings is important, especially if you are in a large crowd of people (fair, mall, concert) or at an event that is receiving a lot of media attention (national televised event, etc.)
Watch for the following:
• Suspicious clouds that aren’t white or grey like steam (most are yellow or green in color and appear thick).
• Look for a suspicious source, such as a cloud or vapor leaking from a parked vehicle, canister, package or unattended luggage.
• Slow-flying aircraft that appears to be “crop-dusting” a populated area.
Nerve Agents: Completely undetectable to the human senses, nerve agents are among the most lethal chemicals in existence. They can be inhaled into the lungs or can pass through the skin or eyes to enter the body.
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.
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 burning symptoms.
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.
Chemical weapons act very quickly, often within a few seconds. Because of this, government officials are unlikely to be able to give warning or guidance, and you’ll have to react almost instantly and on you own to minimize exposure.
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.
If you are outside, remove yourself from the area as quickly as possible. If you are downwind from the event, run perpendicular to the direction of the wind to get onto either side of the cloud (if there is one). If possible, move to a higher elevation, as many airborne chemicals are heavier than air and will seek the low ground.
If you have been exposed, remove your clothing by whatever method that will keep from fluffing up the fabrics. Cut it off delicately. Try to keep the clothing from touching your body as you remove it, especially your face. Wash your entire body with soap and hot water. Visit a medical facility as soon as possible. Some symptoms take hours to set in and you may not know you are affected until it is too late.
SEAL UP A SAFE ROOM
Finding clean air is particularly challenging in an indoor chemical attack or accident. If you are inside, get out by any means possible. Is the quickest way to escape to break a window? Do it. But maybe the chemical spill is so massive that going outside will cause further problems. You’ll have to stick it out inside, which is why you should be prepared to seal off an entire room as best as you can, preferably one on a second story at least.
If a chemical event occurs, immediately turn off your HVAC system, close all of your doors and windows (even the fireplace flue), and don’t go outside. 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.
Ideally, you have sought out an upstairs room in your house that acts as two things: 1) a storage place for your emergency gear; and 2) a safe room that you can escape to when a chemical attack or accident is underway. If you don’t have an air filtration system for this room (and why don’t you?), you’ll need to seal it off with plastic and duct tape.
Seal around all the window and door frames and don’t forget to tape up the HVAC vents. Is there a key hole in the door or electrical outlets in the walls? Seal those too. If you are sealing windows, place a piece of cardboard between the window and the plastic to absorb any shards of glass that may puncture the plastic. Soak towels in water and baking soda.
If you have a gas mask or a chemical suit, it is time to put them on, and keep a close watch on your chemical agent detector (they are not too expensive). Monitor your radio for civil defense broadcasts, and do not leave your sealed room or shelter until you have been told by a trusted source it was safe. Because you will have no idea how long you will be in your safe room, you’ll need to have clean water and safe food for a few days for each person in your group.
The waiting will be the hardest part, but do so 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.
Once you have obtained a reliable source of clean air, your next concern is the residual danger chemical agents may present. It is important to begin personal decontamination as soon as possible, because the longer a chemical is on your skin (or in your environment) the more of a hazard it will be.
The first order of business to decontaminate yourself is to remove your clothing (and seal it in a plastic trash bag) and wash thoroughly with soap and water.
Flushing with copious amounts of water physically removes the chemical agent and will produce good results. Be careful when using soaps and cleaning products, such as bleach and ammonia because of the possibility of a chemical reaction. However, household bleach is a great decontaminate for any personal items or gear that might have been exposed.
Decontamination is needed within minutes of exposure to minimize health consequences. Do not leave the safety of a shelter to go outdoors to help others until authorities announce it is safe to do so.
A person affected by a chemical agent requires immediate medical attention from a professional. If medical help is not immediately available, decontaminate yourself and assist in decontaminating others.
• Use extreme caution when helping others who have been exposed to chemical agents.
• Remove all clothing and other items in contact with the body. Contaminated clothing normally removed over the head should be cut off to avoid contact with the eyes, nose and mouth. Put contaminated clothing and items into a plastic bag and seal it. Decontaminate hands using soap and water. Remove eyeglasses or contact lenses. Put glasses in a pan of household bleach to decontaminate them and then rinse and dry.
• Flush eyes with water.
• Gently wash face and hair with soap and water before thoroughly rinsing with water.
• Decontaminate other body areas likely to have been contaminated. Blot (do not swab or scrape) with a cloth soaked in soapy water and rinse with clear water.
• Change into uncontaminated clothes. Clothing stored in drawers or closets is likely to be uncontaminated.
• Proceed to a medical facility for screening and professional treatment.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 issue of American Survival Guide.