Just a day before the 20th anniversary of the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway which killed 12 and injured more than 5,00 the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications held a hearing to examine the threat of chemical terrorism and the steps that are being taken at all levels of government to address the threat of chemical attacks.
“A terrorist attack using chemical agents is a low probability, high consequence scenario," said subcommittee chairman Martha McSally (R-Ariz.). "A chemical attack could cause mass casualties and significant economic losses. In light of this, we must be vigilant and ensure our first responders and medical personnel are ready to respond.”
Given the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the threat of homegrown Islamist extremism, McSally stressed the importance of ensuring that our first responders are prepared to respond to chemical attacks.
Fire Chief G. Keith Bryant, president and chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, testified that “there is a real threat” that terrorists will conduct a chemical attack on American soil and that jihadists have taken to social media to call for attacks on the US using chemicals. Moreover, the Global Islamic Media Front has published ‘The Explosives Course,’ which provides instruction on how to use commercially-available chemicals to manufacture explosives."
Citing US Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the US Census Bureau’s 2007 Commodity Flow Survey, Bryant said 2.2 billion tons, corresponding to 323 billion ton-miles of hazardous materials, are shipped by air, road, rail and pipeline in the United States annually. There could be devastating consequences if terrorists take advantage of weaknesses in the nation’s transportation system or chemical facilities to obtain toxic chemicals for malicious purposes.
“Toxic industrial chemicals, such as chlorine, compounds containing cyanide, and anhydrous ammonia, are readily available and present in the nation’s transportation system and at chemical facilities,” Bryant said. “While it may not be weaponized, industrial chemicals also require little expertise or preparation to use. Finally, while in many cases, the casualty count may not be high, there would be a psychological shock to a chemical terrorist attack on American soil."
The Department of Justice and FBI have issued numerous bulletins in the past five years warning first responders to be on the lookout for precursors and designs for devices using industrial chemicals and chlorine gases for attacks in enclosed public spaces, such as restaurants and theaters.
Organizing a successful response to a terrorist attack using chemical requires the federal government share information regarding credible threats with local first responders so they know what type of attacks to prepare for. Additionally, the federal government also needs to play a role in training local agencies, EMS and fire departments on how to respond to a terrorist attack involving chemical agents.
“The federal government provides a number of critical resources to help state and local agencies, including planning resources, training opportunities and material support through funding,” Bryant said. “As federal, state and local governments address tightening budget capabilities, we must focus on remaining prepared to protect our citizens from this pernicious threat.”
Dr. Mark Kirk, director of the Chemical Defense Program, Office of Health Affairs, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), testified that, “Readily accessible chemicals are used in the United States by those committing ‘chemical suicide,’ and recently chlorine was deliberately released in a Rosemont, Illinois hotel affecting a group attending a convention.”
The threat is not only chemical warfare agents. Even household chemicals can be used a potential weapons. Toxic industrial chemicals, often referred to as “Agents of Opportunity,” pose a significant risk since they are easier to synthesize than chemical warfare agents and are readily available in large quantities.
Although chemicals cause predictable toxic effects, which means a response can be planned, each incident is unique and time often inhibits emergency response planning. Chemical incidents often occur abruptly and require fast response times.
“Chemical agents can be used to kill, incapacitate large numbers of people, cause permanent or long-lasting harm, contaminate critical infrastructure and create uncertainty, fear and panic,” Kirk said.
In the early stages of a chemical attack, first responders often find themselves operating “in the blind,” deciphering between accurate and misleading information that prevents the responders from determining the scale of the incident.
This puts first responders in a precarious position. For example, if emergency personnel do not know the type of chemical involved in the incident, the appropriate protective garments may not be worn, putting the first responders in a dangerous situation where they could suffer injury or even death.
Similarly, Bryant said, “There may be confusion during the initial response about whether it is an actual terrorist attack or a hazmat incident, which requires that federal, state and local authorities plan, train and exercise ahead of time.”
With the need for accurate information, especially in the initial stages of an attack, interagency information sharing is vital. The OHA Chemical Defense Program, for instance, seeks to build preparedness for chemical terrorism and accidents at the federal, state and local levels. OHA coordinates and shares information with various entities including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Protection and Programs Directorate and DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate’s Chemical Security Analysis Center.
Kirk said, “We plan to partner with other agencies and relevant organizations to share our findings so that we can assist in the creation of training and education methods that will help decision-makers at all levels operate within a structured environment even during the chaotic first moments of a chemical incident, and optimize key information sharing in order to make sound critical decisions.”
“However,” Kirk added, “There is still important work to do on planning and preparation for an end-to-end approach that takes into account a full chemical threat short and long term effects.”
Hospitals must also be prepared to respond to a chemical incident. But the question of whether hospitals are currently prepared to manage andtreat the victims of a chemical attack is a difficult one to answer, according to Dr. Christina Catlett, associate director, Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, Department of Emergency Medicine, Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Catlett said that although the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax attacks “spurred a paradigm shift in preparedness activities,” there is little information that exists attesting to whether hospitals and healthcare systems are prepared to meet the threat of a chemical event.
However, according to 2008 data, only 69.6 percent of hospitals had performed an exercise involving decontamination procedures, and only 55.6 percent of hospitals had participated in a mass casualty drill involving a chemical accident or attack scenario.
With attention focused on other types of disasters, such as emerging infectious diseases, preparation for a chemical attack has fallen off the radar of many hospitals. Catlett said that, “Given the current lack of focus on chemical response in medical education, we are raising a new generation of care providers who are naïve to the threat of chemical terrorism.”
Moving forward, Catlett recommended that hospitals and healthcare systems obtain new data that accurately reflects the level of preparedness for chemical events, conducting ongoing training of healthcare providers in chemical response, and that hospitals partner with the Intelligence Community in an effort to increase information sharing.
“Hospital preparedness for chemical terrorism has improved since 2001, but we cannot allow our achievements to erode due to complacency,” Catlett said, noting that, “The time has come to abandon our reactionary stance to critical events and assume a more forward-leaning posture in preparing for agents of opportunity through implementation of thoughtful preparedness initiatives such as research, education and training.”
Quoting General Pershing after World War I, Catlett concluded: "’the effect is so deadly to the unprepared that we can never afford to neglect the question.’”
America is unprepared for either a biological or chemical weapons attack, and lacks the infrastructure needed to detect the threat of such an attack, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense recently concluded.
"Our legislative and executive branches are not capable of producing an effective reaction to an eventual biological threat," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). "The Blue Ribbon Study Panel is addressing a vital issue that government hasn’t been able to rally behind."
Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Julie Gerberding acknowledged the agency had not done enough during her tenure to prepare for a threat like the recent Ebola outbreak.
Representatives from New York City, Indianapolis, Texas A&M University and the Alliance for Biosecurity presented recommendations for medically responding to chemical and biological attacks as well as outbreaks of emerging diseases like pandemic flu.
EcoHealth Alliance Executive Vice President Dr. William B. Karesh explained that biological and chemical threats endanger not just humans but animals. "Humans or livestock can’t be discussed in isolation anymore," he said. "There is just one health, and one solution to stop such a cataclysmic event."
"Our world is threatened more so than ever today by terrorist groups like ISIS who can create undetectable immediate threats," added former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. "Our government is delusional to think we can get by without a strong biodefense policy."