Save Your Breath

Pre­par­ing for a Do­mes­tic Chem­i­cal At­tack

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Contents - By Lorenzo Pal­adino

Pre­par­ing for a Do­mes­tic Chem­i­cal At­tack

Imag­ine that you’re strolling by a large city park near your home on a beau­ti­ful sunny day. There’s a pop­u­lar mu­seum across the street and a busy metro line on the cor­ner, crowded with lo­cals and tourists through­out the day. Your heart skips a beat when you hear a muted bang. You turn to see a large white de­liv­ery van parked at the curb with smoke and mist start­ing to bil­low out of the back.

Some­thing else seems odd about the van — then it dawns on you that there’s no driver. Sud­denly, screams be­gin to fill the air. Some peo­ple ap­pear to be chok­ing, grasp­ing at their throats while their eyes tear up; oth­ers be­gin vom­it­ing. The pedes­tri­ans clos­est to the ve­hi­cle col­lapse to the ground and start con­vuls­ing. Is this re­ally hap­pen­ing? What’s ac­tu­ally go­ing on? You’re at the epi­cen­ter of a nerve gas at­tack. Terror at­tacks have un­for­tu­nately be­come more com­mon in metropoli­tan cities. There are ter­ror­ist man­u­als re­gard­ing chem­i­cal weapons on the Internet. Tox­ins can be made with house­hold items avail­able at lo­cal su­per­mar­kets and hard­ware stores. Be­cause lone wolf or non-state ac­tors can ob­tain them, these are no longer events that might only be en­coun­tered by sol­diers in far­away bat­tle­fields. The re­al­ity is that the fight can be brought to your city, as ev­i­denced time and again in the news.

This type of dan­ger needn’t take the form of a de­lib­er­ate ter­ror­ist at­tack — it might be the far more com­mon in­dus­trial ac­ci­dent. A freight train or tanker truck car­ry­ing chlo­rine through your town could de­rail or crash, leak­ing near res­i­den­tial houses or your work­place. Much of the in­for­ma­tion pre­sented here ap­plies to those sce­nar­ios as well. Are you pre­pared for such an oc­cur­rence?

Chem­i­cal War­fare

The his­tory of chem­i­cal war­fare dates back thou­sands of years, to when nat­u­ral an­i­mal and plant tox­ins were used to coat ar­row­heads and in­crease their lethal­ity. In the 5th cen­tury BC, Spar­tans burned coal,

sul­fur, and pitch to gas the Athe­ni­ans in the Pelo­pon­nesian War. In more modern times, chem­i­cal agents have been used in both World Wars, Viet­nam, Iraq, and re­cently in Syria. Nerve agents have been used to as­sas­si­nate for­mer Rus­sian and North Korean op­er­a­tives in pub­lic spa­ces in west­ern coun­tries — with the po­ten­tial for col­lat­eral civil­ian vic­tims. Ter­ror­ists have also ex­ploited this weapon, from the sarin at­tacks in Tokyo to at­tempted cyanide plots on the NYC sub­way.

Types of Chem­i­cal Weapons

Chok­ing agents, or pul­monary ir­ri­tants, at­tack the eyes, air­ways, and lungs. These gases form hy­drochlo­ric acid and other chem­i­cals on con­tact with mois­ture in the mu­cous mem­branes, caus­ing burn­ing and tis­sue de­struc­tion. When in­haled, the lungs fill with fluid, es­sen­tially drown­ing the vic­tim. Chlo­rine and phos­gene be­long to this class. A distinc­tion be­tween the two is that chlo­rine will cause im­me­di­ate irritation, whereas phos­gene can start to af­fect you some­time later, even af­ter you’ve left the area. Chlo­rine and phos­gene are mass-pro­duced and used in var­i­ous in­dus­trial pro­cesses. They’re trans­ported in large quan­ti­ties, mak­ing them both a dan­ger due to ac­ci­dents and an op­por­tu­nity for ter­ror­ists.

Nerve agents can kill in min­utes, af­fect­ing the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem. They’re the quick­est act­ing and most lethal of all chem­i­cal agents. They cause con­stric­tion and tear­ing of the eyes, sali­va­tion, loss of bowel and blad­der con­trol, breath­ing difficulty, seizures, and death. Sarin and many pes­ti­cides are in this cat­e­gory.

Blood agents kill by block­ing an en­zyme crit­i­cal for nor­mal en­ergy pro­duc­tion, stop­ping the cells’ abil­ity to uti­lize oxy­gen. High oxy­gen-con­sum­ing or­gans like the brain and heart are af fected first. Since the agents af fect the body’s abil­ity to process oxy­gen, not the in­take of oxy­gen into the body, merely giv­ing more oxy­gen to a vic­tim has no ef fect. An an­ti­dote is re­quired, given in large amounts through an IV.

Hy­dro­gen cyanide is a type of blood agent; it has the odor of bit­ter al­monds when in the air. Vic­tims be­come rapidly un­con­scious, con­vulse, and then suf­fer car­diac ar­rest. The skin of those suf­fer­ing from cyanide poi­son­ing may some­times ap­pear red, though this is a very late and un­re­li­able sign. Ter­ror­ists had de­vel­oped an ef­fi­cient cyanide gas dis­per­sion de­vice to be used in a plot to at­tack the NYC sub­way in 2003. For rea­sons that are still un­clear, the plot wasn’t car­ried out.

Chem­i­cal ir­ri­tant agents, like pep­per spray and tear gas, are usu­ally used for riot con­trol or self-de­fense. They cause in­tense pain, cough­ing, breath­ing dif fi­culty, and tear­ing. They’re not usu­ally fa­tal ex­cept in cer­tain spe­cial cir­cum­stances, such as in a con­fined space without any means of es­cape. Symp­toms can be mit­i­gated by mov­ing the vic­tim away from the area and wash­ing off the agent.

Blis­ter agents cause blis­ters and burns on con­tact with the skin and eyes. They’ll also burn the lungs if in­haled. Sul­fur, mus­tard gas (so named be­cause of its gar­lick­y­mus­tard odor), and Lewisite are in this class. In the initial mo­ments of an at­tack, blis­ter agents may be mis­taken for riot con­trol agents, ex­cept symp­toms will get se­verely worse with time and won’t sub­side if the vic­tim is re­moved from the area.

Sit­u­a­tional Aware­ness

Al­ways be aware of your sur­round­ings and leave im­me­di­ately if you feel un­com­fort­able or if some­thing doesn’t seem right. Be vig­i­lant, es­pe­cially in large crowded ar­eas, trans­porta­tion hubs, pa­rades, and con­cert events.

Clues that may sig­nal an im­pend­ing ter­ror­ist gas at­tack in­clude strange va­por clouds or mists, un­usual odors or tastes, and unat­tended ve­hi­cles or pack­ages, es­pe­cially if they’re leak­ing fluid. The Aum Shin­rikyo ter­ror­ists of the 1995 Tokyo sub­way gas at­tack punc­tured their pack­ages with sharp­ened um­brel­las and left the train sta­tions as the sarin leaked out. The pack­ages were sim­ply plas­tic bags of sarin wrapped in news­pa­per.

Ex­plo­sions are an ob­vi­ous give­away; how­ever, they may be small or con­tained. While in com­bat in Mosul, this au­thor quickly learned that dur­ing mor­tar at­tacks, the muted thuds or softer ex­plo­sions were usu­ally shells car­ry­ing chem­i­cals. The same lessons could ap­ply to the civil­ian world. If you’re in the vicin­ity of an ex­plo­sion that sounds muted or like a dud, it might be a de­liv­ery de­vice for a chem­i­cal or bi­o­log­i­cal agent.

Ex­plo­sive de­vices, when used, un­in­ten­tion­ally burn or de­stroy some of the agent. There­fore, ter­ror­ists gen­er­ally use lower quan­ti­ties of ex­plo­sive ma­te­rial in these de­vices to max­i­mize the im­pact of the tox­ins. Also, larger quan­ti­ties re­duce the con­ceal­a­bil­ity of a de­vice, com­pared to

one that fits neatly in a back­pack or other small con­tainer that can be planted or trans­ported in­con­spic­u­ously. Some agents, like sarin, only take a drop to kill an adult.

Ef­fi­cient dis­per­sion of an agent is a constant chal­lenge with chem­i­cal weapons; thank­fully, ter­ror­ists haven’t fully fig­ured this out. An in­door re­lease of chem­i­cals is more con­cen­trated and ef­fec­tive; how­ever, it lim­its the num­ber of po­ten­tial vic­tims to those within the struc­ture. An out­door dis­per­sion can cause more chaos and reach more of the pop­u­la­tion, but it can be di­luted in min­utes or hours de­pend­ing on wind and weather con­di­tions.

If you see some­thing sus­pi­cious along these lines, get at least 300 feet away, prefer­ably up­wind, be­fore us­ing your cell phone to alert au­thor­i­ties. Cell phones and ra­dios may in­ad­ver­tently trig­ger some ex­plo­sive de­vices. When at all pos­si­ble, use a land­line to re­port a de­vice that’s nearby.

Bar­rier and Dis­tance

In an out­door sce­nario, wind di­rec­tion is a fac­tor. You al­ways want to be po­si­tioned up­wind of the de­vice, so the toxin won’t be blown to­ward you. This may mean mod­i­fy­ing your es­cape route. Most de­vices have a dis­per­sal ra­dius of less than half a mile.

Move in­doors as fast as pos­si­ble. A build­ing with its win­dows and doors closed pro­vides a lot of pro­tec­tion. If the op­tion is avail­able, try to get 30 feet or more above the ground. Many poi­sonous gases are heav­ier than air and con­cen­trate low to the ground and in base­ments. That’s why they were so ef­fec­tive in the dug-out trenches of past wars. Trenches, which pro­tected the sol­diers from gun­fire, would con­cen­trate and col­lect the deadly gases, killing or flush­ing out sol­diers.

Climb­ing to a higher floor (the higher, the bet­ter) will not only de­crease the con­cen­tra­tion of the gas due to al­ti­tude, but will also place more dis­tance be­tween you and the source. Re­mem­ber, dis­tance is mea­sured not only hor­i­zon­tally, but ver­ti­cally. Use both of these fac­tors to your ad­van­tage. A de­vice re­leas­ing phos­gene on the street may not reach the 14th floor, even if it’s right in front of your build­ing.


Hose your­self off as soon as pos­si­ble and re­move all your cloth­ing. You should try to do this in the first min­uted or two af­ter ex­po­sure. Don’t lift cloth­ing over your face and head, to avoid pass­ing con­tam­i­nated ma­te­rial over your nose and mouth. Re­move your top by rip­ping or cut­ting it off if nec­es­sary. Put the con­tam­i­nated items in a plas­tic bag and tie it off. Place it in a sec­ond bag, tie that off, and dis­card it out­side your shel­ter — out a win­dow, on a fire es­cape, or in the back­yard — to avoid fur­ther con­tact with the chem­i­cal agent.

When de­con­tam­i­nat­ing your­self, a shower is your best op­tion. If no shower is avail­able, im­pro­vise us­ing faucets, wa­ter cool­ers, hoses, and so forth. For most chem­i­cals, re­mov­ing your cloth­ing and wash­ing with soap and wa­ter is suf­fi­cient. Pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to armpits, gen­i­tals, and in­ner thighs. Warm, moist ar­eas ac­ti­vate blis­ter­ing agents like mus­tard gas, and in­juries can be in­ten­si­fied in these ar­eas. Don’t use a brush or scrub too hard — you don’t want to break or abrade your skin, which would make it eas­ier for con­tam­i­nants to en­ter the body. Use cool wa­ter; hot wa­ter opens pores, fa­cil­i­tat­ing en­try of the chem­i­cal.

Thick, stub­born, oily liq­uids stuck to the skin can be re­moved us­ing a credit card or spat­ula; be care­ful to not scrape the skin. You can put cal­cium chlo­ride (ice melt salt) and mag­ne­sium ox­ide (indigestion med­i­ca­tion) pow­der on af­fected ar­eas. If you don’t have these items, you can use flour or tal­cum pow­der. For eyes, use sodium bi­car­bon­ate (baking soda) so­lu­tion or di­luted in­fant sham­poo to de­con­tam­i­nate and help neu­tral­ize burn­ing. Re­move con­tact lenses and throw them out; don’t put new con­tacts in. Wash your glasses thor­oughly with soap and wa­ter and air-dry be­fore putting them back on.


Find a win­dow­less in­te­rior room if pos­si­ble. Lock and seal doors and win­dows with plas­tic bags and duct tape. Make sure air conditioners, vents, and fire­places are closed. Tape plas­tic over elec­tri­cal out­lets. Use im­pro­vised items, such as tow­els or sheets, to shove un­der doors to seal cracks. Busi­nesses and homes can pre­pare in ad­vance by pre-cut­ting 2- to 4-mil­lime­ter-thick plas­tic sheet­ing to size, so that you can quickly cover any open­ings in pre­s­e­lected in­te­rior rooms.

Store food, wa­ter, and a battery-op­er­ated ra­dio in these rooms. The Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity rec­om­mends 10 square feet of floor space per per­son to pro­vide suf fi­cient air to pre­vent car­bon diox­ide buildup for up to five hours. Out­door chem­i­cal re­leases are usu­ally di­luted to safe lev­els within a few hours, so you’ll likely only need to shel­ter-in-place for a short time.

Lis­ten for the emer­gency broad­cast on your ra­dio to con­firm it’s clear to leave shel­ter. Your shel­ter-in-place kit should in­clude your 72-hour go-bag, food, wa­ter, chem­i­cal suit (as­sum­ing you’ve been prop­erly trained to use one), gas mask, battery-op­er­ated ra­dio, and an M256A1 kit. The M256A1 kit is a chem­i­cal war­fare agent de­tec­tor sys­tem. It uses reagents and de­tec­tor paper to alert you of a blood, nerve, or blis­ter agent in the at­mos­phere.

This will al­low you to know what threats you’re fac­ing and con­firm their sta­tus when you get the all-clear.

First Aid

Other than show­er­ing off and re­mov­ing con­tam­i­nated cloth­ing, there are no read­ily avail­able home an­ti­dotes. An­ti­his­tamines can re­duce skin itch­ing if it oc­curs. Treat skin blis­ters with stan­dard burn therapy, prefer­ably with sil­ver sul­fa­di­azine cream.

Don’t ban­dage eyes that are ir­ri­tated or have chem­i­cal burns. Petroleum jelly can be used along the eye­lash mar­gin to pre­vent stick­ing of the eye­lid edges from the burns and irritation. If bright light causes eye pain, use sun­glasses or dim the lights.

In the event of a nerve gas at­tack, pre­scrip­tion at­ropine auto-in­jec­tors are car­ried by first re­spon­ders. At­ropine ex­ists in na­ture, in plants such as bel­ladonna or the night­shade fam­ily and Jim­son weed. Some sources have ad­vo­cated in­gest­ing por­tions of these plants as a treat­ment, but is ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. There’s no way to know how much at­ropine is in a given plant be­cause it varies from sam­ple to sam­ple. Over­dose can re­sult in death; there­fore con­sum­ing these plants isn’t rec­om­mended as an an­ti­dote.

In fact, the name at­ropine comes from Greek mythol­ogy — Atro­pos, one of the god­desses of fate, would de­cide how peo­ple would die. That fact alone should tell you that eat­ing these plants isn’t a good idea. Another prob­lem with this sce­nario is that your gas­troin­testi­nal sys­tem would be af­fected by the nerve gas and not be work­ing prop­erly to process any­thing you took by mouth safely or re­li­ably.

For chlo­rine, often just re­mov­ing sat­u­rated cloth­ing and show­er­ing off can re­lieve symp­toms. Re­mem­ber: Don’t pull cloth­ing over your head. If you or a fam­ily mem­ber has a home neb­u­lizer ma­chine for asthma or em­phy­sema, you can place a wa­ter and baking soda (sodium bi­car­bon­ate) mix­ture in the neb­u­lizer and in­hale to help re­lieve per­sis­tent pul­monary irritation symp­toms like wheez­ing and cough­ing.

A room hu­mid­i­fier can be used if you don’t have a neb­u­lizer. Place your face above it and in­hale the mist. Of course, you should go to an emer­gency room if you have these symp­toms, but if that’s not an op­tion due to civil chaos and un­rest, you can try these methods.

Gas Masks

Masks must be from a rep­utable seller and not just a sur­plus store. Many masks from these dis­count cen­ters are older, ob­so­lete mod­els and have been proven in­ef­fec­tive. Make sure your mask is ap­proved by the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health (NIOSH) and is CBRN rated. A gas mask won’t pre­vent the rest of your body from absorbing chem­i­cals, but can de­crease it by as much as 90 per­cent in some cases. Good chem­i­cal over­alls and gloves are cheap and can cover the rest of your body. They’re only ef­fec­tive if donned in ad­vance of ex­po­sure or af­ter you’re thor­oughly de­con­tam­i­nated. See our gas mask buyer’s guide in this is­sue for more info.


Tox­i­c­ity from chem­i­cal agents is related to their con­cen­tra­tion and the amount of time you’re ex­posed. Both of these fac­tors are de­creased by plac­ing dis­tance and bar­ri­ers be­tween you and the source. We hope you’ll never face threats of this na­ture, but knowl­edge and preparation will go a long way to in­creas­ing your sur­viv­abil­ity.

Sur­viv­ing a chem­i­cal gas at­tack re­quires plan­ning. The phases to con­sider are:

1. Preparation (equip­ment, re­sources, and plan) 2. Ac­tions dur­ing the event (es­cape, de­con­tam­i­na­tion, and shel­ter in place)

3. Ac­tions im­me­di­ately post-event (med­i­cal care, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and test­ing for all-clear)

Tox­i­c­ity from a gas is related to the con­cen­tra­tion and the amount of time you’re ex­posed. Both of these fac­tors are de­creased by plac­ing dis­tance and bar­ri­ers be­tween you and the source.

There are sev­eral good re­sources for fur­ther read­ing on ter­ror­ism, chem­i­cal at­tack pre­pared­ness, and mit­i­ga­tion on the web. In­for­ma­tion is avail­able at the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity and the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency web­sites.

U.S. Army photo by Fort Leonard Wood Pub­lic Af­fairs Of­fice

Re­cent chem­i­cal at­tacks in Syria show just how deadly and widely used chem­i­cal weapons are. Many can be made us­ing com­mon house­holdma­te­ri­als.

Re­ports show that vic­tims of the April 7, 2018, chem­i­cal at­tack in Syria were brought to the hos­pi­tal smelling strongly of a chlo­rine-like sub­stance and pre­sent­ing symp­toms that in­cluded cyanosis, foam­ing of the mouth, and corneal irritation.


Not only should a kit built to deal with a chem­i­cal at­tack con­tain the usual sup­plies, like food, wa­ter, and a ra­dio, but there are many over­the-counter med­i­ca­tions that should be in­cluded to help stave off the ef­fects of a chem­i­cal ex­po­sure.

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