Chemical warfare agents are officially classified as Weapons of Mass Destruction. The use of chemical agents is a real threat in modern warfare and it is possibly only a matter of time before terrorists acquire and use chemical weapons against civilian populations.
What are chemical weapons?
These are chemicals in solid (usually powdered form), liquids or gases that are used to kill/render harmless ground troops or civilians. Anyone affected quickly becomes too sick to offer any resistance. Chemical weapons can also be used to destroy natural sources of food and water making survival in an affected area difficult or impossible. Against humans and domestic farm stock, chemicals are chosen that will be harmful when they enter the body by breathing them in, ingesting them or by skin contact. Against vegetation, chemicals are chosen that will defoliate and kill trees, kill crops and render any food from these sources dangerously toxic if consumed by humans or animals; this contamination can last for years. Against water supplies, chemicals are chosen that make water sources in the kill zone toxic enough to cause death or incapacitating sickness if consumed.
How do you know chemical agents have been deployed?
Chemical weapons used in a theatre of war have to be delivered using rockets, artillery shells or by aerial bombardment. If any of these munitions explode with a muffled sound, as opposed to the violent explosion of high explosive, it is a fair assumption that chemical payloads are being deployed. In a survival situation or caught in a surprise attack you may not have chemical detection equipment. Streaming eyes, difficulty breathing, choking sensation, itchy skin, red burn patches on the skin, coughing, dizziness and nausea are indications that chemical weapons have been deployed but some of these symptoms are also caused by biological weapons. Most chemical warfare agents are odourless but chemicals that affect the respiratory system may have the smell of freshly cut grass or hay. Chemical agents that are designed to attack blood may smell of almonds.
Chemical agents in the solid or liquid state may have a colour, in the gaseous state they can look like fog or ground mist immediately after the shell or bomb has exploded, although this will quickly mix with the air and not be so obvious.
Chemical weapons are designed to be lethal and the only way to survive a direct attack is by wearing a breathing mask and completely covering the whole body in a protective NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) protective suit. (A military NBC suit is designed to allow military personnel to continue to fight in an area where nuclear, biological or chemical weapons have been deployed. Protective suits used by rescue agencies are less rugged, designed to give a greater area of vision and freedom of movement and may be one–time use.) NBC suits vary depending on their intended use. Before removing an NBC suit, it has to be decontaminated. Anyone caught up in a chemical attack zone that does not have an NBC suit and respirator has zero to limited chances of survival. The following notes apply to people surviving in the fringes of an attack zone or to those having no choice but to enter an area that has been attacked with chemical weapons.
Note for civilians
Civilians can purchase both the masks and suits but ensure these are from a reputable supplier. In most cases, civilians need a protective suit that is light and portable, allowing good vision and freedom of movement and this will normally only be needed to escape a contaminated area so a disposable suit is all that is necessary. A quality suit will set you back around £300 and a mask around £150.
Illustrated above is equipment issued to the Israeli Army. A disposable suite like this, or similar, is on sale to the general public. Below is a respirator designed to be worn inside the NBC suite.
Without this degree of protection a civilian has little chance of surviving in the epicentre of a weaponized chemical attack. Investing in a NCB suit and mask is a matter of personal choice — in my view almost a worthless exercise because the use of chemical weapons by terrorists (although featured in many movies)is less likely in reality because both chemical and biological weapons are highly restricted as effective terror weapons due to the problem of delivering them. Chemical weapons can be deployed on the battlefield using munitions, such as, shells fired from field guns and cluster bombs dropped by aircraft. The desired spread of the chemical or biological agent can be achieved by repeated bombardment and by exploding them in the air over the kill zone.
What are the risks of a chemical attack? A terrorist is highly unlikely to be able to deploy chemical weapons effectively and such an attack would most likely be limited to civilian targets such as subways or individual buildings where the agent could be spread by the ventilation system. The kill zone, even in a busy underground railway system, would be restricted. Also, these attacks come without warning (whereas, on the battlefield one can be prepared for the possibility of these attacks) and so to protect oneself would mean carrying an NBC suit and respirator around all day long just in case of a terrorist attack or industrial accident. Owning a suit maybe has a value if one lives in close proximity to a chemical plant and there is a risk of an accidental discharge of hazardous chemicals. Potential terrorist targets would be drinking water supplies and industrial plants producing dangerous chemicals as the source of the chemical attack by blowing up storage tanks and releasing toxic chemicals in to the air.
Also, attacks such as the attack in Japan on March 20, 1995: In five coordinated attacks, the terrorists released Sarin on several lines of the Tokyo Metro, killing twelve people, severely injuring fifty and causing temporary vision problems for nearly a thousand others.
How can you tell if chemical weapons have been used?
This very difficult, especially as many biological warfare weapons can give the same symptoms as chemical weapons, so in a survival situation, civilian or military, try to assess what is going on around you. Dead fish floating in ponds and rivers or farm animals lying dead in fields are a good indication that chemical weapons have been deployed in the area. First warning signs that you are in a contaminated area are:
Only food and water in sealed containers should be used but first the container should be decontaminated. Nerve agents and substances causing injury to the skin and tissue can penetrate many different types of material, such as paint, plastics and rubber so care has to be taken in sourcing, for example, bottled water. Never use food or water containers that have been exposed unless you can identify the chemical agent used and know how to render its effects harmless.
The best source of food and water in an urban survival situation is the storage areas of supermarkets and 'shops–within–shops,' such as in a shopping mall — but be prepared to fight for it! Do not trust tap water, even if your supplies are still running, best to defrost freezers or fridges, use water from an unflushed lavatory cistern and locate any source of water that lies below ground; some ingenuity may be necessary. Some survival guides advise that all water should be boiled or purified and this is true because you still need to protect yourself against biological and viral contamination of water. However, boiling does not render chemically contaminated water safe; in fact, it will either concentrate the toxicity or give off lethal fumes if the water contains a nerve agent. Distilling water contaminated with nerve agents will supply you with distilled water contaminated with nerve agents!
If you have combat rations, these should be safe, but all packaging has to be decontaminated. The same applies to food supplies stored in the home. If you must supplement rations with local plants or animals and cannot escape contaminated areas, you should dig up plants that are buried below the top soil. For example, carrots, potatoes, edible roots, etc. However hungry you are, never be tempted to eat surface crops, fruits or nuts because these will be toxic. Never eat from a sick or dead animal carcass. When handling containers, plants or animals, you should always use protective gloves and clothing. If protective gloves and clothing are not available, use whatever you have to cover yourself and hope for the best because the name of the game is to survive as long as possible until you can escape the area or until emergency services can reach you.
If you need to collect water from natural sources, this must be from closed underground supplies only if you are in the epicentre of the attack zone. If you are out of the epicentre, collect water from streams and rivers that do not run through the area contaminated by the chemical attack. All surface water should be purified or boiled before drinking it. First, collect some water in a clear container. If it has an "oily" look to it, froths when you swill it around or has any odour you would not expect, then do not drink it or attempt to purify it and discard the vessel you used to collect the sample.