|Biological, Chemical Attacks and How to Prepare for Them.
Biological agents are organisms or toxins that can kill or incapacitate people, livestock,
and crops. The three basic groups of biological agents that would likely be used as
weapons are bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Most biological agents are difficult to grow and
maintain. Many break down quickly when exposed to sunlight and other environmental
factors, while others, such as anthrax spores, are very long lived. Biological agents can be
dispersed by spraying them into the air, by infecting animals that carry the disease to
humans, and by contaminating food and water. Delivery methods include:
• Aerosols - biological agents are dispersed into the air, forming a fine mist that may
drift for miles. Inhaling the agent may cause disease in people or animals.
• Animals - some diseases are spread by insects and animals, such as fleas, mice,
flies, mosquitoes, and livestock.
• Food and water contamination - some pathogenic organisms and toxins may persist
in food and water supplies. Most microbes can be killed, and toxins deactivated, by
cooking food and boiling water. Most microbes are killed by boiling water for one minute,
but some require longer. Follow official instructions.
• Person-to-person - spread of a few infectious agents is also possible. Humans have
been the source of infection for smallpox, plague, and the Lassa viruses.
Specific information on biological agents is available at the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention's Web site.
How can I protect myself from a biological attack?
• What to do before a biological attack
• What to do during a biological attack
• What to do after a biological attack
Before a Biological Attack
What you should do to prepare:
Check with your doctor to ensure all required or suggested immunizations are up to date.
Children and older adults are particularly vulnerable to biological agents.
Consider installing a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter in your furnace return
duct. These filters remove particles in the 0.3 to 10 micron range and will filter out most
biological agents that may enter your house. If you do not have a central heating or
cooling system, a stand-alone portable HEPA filter can be used.
Filtration in buildings
Building owners and managers should determine the type and level of filtration in their
structures and the level of protection it provides against biological agents. The National
Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides technical guidance on this
topic in their publication Guidance for Filtration and Air-Cleaning Systems to Protect
Building Environments from Airborne Chemical, Biological, or Radiological Attacks. To
obtain a copy, call 1 (800) 35NIOSH or visit the National Institute for Occupational Safety
and Health Web site and request or download
During a Biological Attack
In the event of a biological attack, public health officials may not immediately be able to
provide information on what you should do. It will take time to determine what the illness is,
how it should be treated, and who is in danger. Watch television, listen to radio, or check
the Internet for official news and information including signs and symptoms of the disease,
areas in danger, if medications or vaccinations are being distributed, and where you
should seek medical attention if you become ill.
The first evidence of an attack may be when you notice symptoms of the disease caused
by exposure to an agent. Be suspicious of any symptoms you notice, but do not assume
that any illness is a result of the attack. Use common sense and practice good hygiene.
If you become aware of an unusual and suspicious substance nearby:
• Move away quickly.
• Wash with soap and water.
• Contact authorities.
• Listen to the media for official instructions.
• Seek medical attention if you become sick.
If you are exposed to a biological agent:
• Remove and bag your clothes and personal items. Follow official instructions for
disposal of contaminated items.
• Wash yourself with soap and water and put on clean clothes.
• Seek medical assistance. You may be advised to stay away from others or even
Using HEPA Filters
HEPA filters are useful in biological attacks. If you have a central heating and cooling
system in your home with a HEPA filter, leave it on if it is running or turn the fan on if it is
not running. Moving the air in the house through the filter will help remove the agents from
the air. If you have a portable HEPA filter, take it with you to the internal room where you
are seeking shelter and turn it on.
If you are in an apartment or office building that has a modern, central heating and cooling
system, the system’s filtration should provide a relatively safe level of protection from
outside biological contaminants.
HEPA filters will not filter chemical agents.
After a Biological Attack
In some situations, such as the case of the anthrax letters sent in 2001, people may be
alerted to potential exposure. If this is the case, pay close attention to all official warnings
and instructions on how to proceed. The delivery of medical services for a biological event
may be handled differently to respond to increased demand. The basic public health
procedures and medical protocols for handling exposure to biological agents are the same
as for any infectious disease. It is important for you to pay attention to official instructions
via radio, television, and emergency alert systems.
Chemical agents are poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquids, and solids that have toxic
effects on people, animals, or plants. They can be released by bombs or sprayed from
aircraft, boats, and vehicles. They can be used as a liquid to create a hazard to people
and the environment. Some chemical agents may be odorless and tasteless. They can
have an immediate effect (a few seconds to a few minutes) or a delayed effect (2 to 48
hours). While potentially lethal, chemical agents are difficult to deliver in lethal
concentrations. Outdoors, the agents often dissipate rapidly. Chemical agents also are
difficult to produce.
A chemical attack could come without warning. Signs of a chemical release include
people having difficulty breathing; experiencing eye irritation; losing coordination;
becoming nauseated; or having a burning sensation in the nose, throat, and lungs. Also,
the presence of many dead insects or birds may indicate a chemical agent release.
How can I protect myself from a chemical attack?
• What to do before a chemical attack
• What to do during a chemical attack
• What to do after a chemical attack
Before a Chemical Attack
What you should do to prepare for a chemical threat:
* Check your disaster supplies kit to make sure it includes:
* A roll of duct tape and scissors.
* Plastic for doors, windows, and vents for the room in which you will shelter in place. To
save critical time during an emergency, pre-measure and cut the plastic sheeting for
* Choose an internal room to shelter, preferably one without windows and on the highest
During a Chemical Attack
What you should do in a chemical attack:
If you are instructed to remain in your home or office building, you should:
• Close doors and windows and turn off all ventilation, including furnaces, air
conditioners, vents, and fans.
• Seek shelter in an internal room and take your disaster supplies kit.
• Seal the room with duct tape and plastic sheeting.
• Listen to your radio for instructions from authorities.
If you are caught in or near a contaminated area, you should:
• Move away immediately in a direction upwind of the source.
• Find shelter as quickly as possible.
After a Chemical Attack
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.
Decontamination guidelines are as follows:
• 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
• Proceed to a medical facility for screening and professional treatment.