Chemical weapons and chemical warfare, these almost forgotten threats. There are some good news and bad news about them. The bad news is that chemical weapons are alive and well today. They’ve been around in the 21st century, dating back to WWI when a number of countries started using them.
By the end of that first world war, as many as one-third of the casualties had been caused —at least in part — through the use of chemical weapons.
History of chemical weapons
Following WWI, efforts were made to outlaw chemical weapons, but the efforts failed. Japan made extensive use of chemical agents in its invasion of China, and Italy (despite treaties it had signed not to do so) used chemical weapons in the mid-1930s in its invasion of Abyssinia.
As WWII approached, European civilians were issued gas masks and received careful training in their use (Britain, for example, issued over 30 million masks to its civilians and trained them how to use the devices.) Many feel that the only reason chemical agents weren’t used in WWII was the careful training of both the public and troops in how to deal with chemical weapons and the huge stocks of the weapons which many of the larger countries had should they have had to retaliate against a chemical attack.
This was fortunate since Germany held the secret to new, deadly nerve gases. There were not deployed only because German intelligence had mistakenly assumed that the Allies had similar weapons — even though the Allies didn’t!
Following WWII, both the West and East have developed the nerve gases pioneered by the Nazis as well as new deadly toxins to create even more dangerous chemical weapons.
Unfortunately, unlike during WWII, these weapons have been used with great regularity by communist countries as well as countries supplied by Russia or China when battling enemies who don’t have such weapons. Chemical weapons have been used in Yemen, Afghanistan, Laos, and Cambodia as well as in the Iraq-Iranian war and — apparently — Vietnamese-Chinese border skirmishes.
For those not having enough to worry about Libya, Cuba, Syria, Egypt, India, Pakistan, as well as larger countries like France, Great Britain, Russia, and the U.S. are believed to have chemical arsenals. And then there are terrorists…
The bottom line to all this is YOU could be the target of a chemical attack — by way of terrorist action, a dirty little war, or perhaps even an all-out Armageddon — if past history is any indication. Okay. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there are ways to greatly improve your chances of surviving a chemical weapons attack. In fact, chemical weapons, including toxins, though deadly, are not as all-encompassing as many people believe.
Yes, one large drop of a nerve agent on your skin will make your insurance agent’s life more complicated. But the catch is that it isn’t all that easy to get that drop onto your skin, especially if you know what you’re doing.
Generally, chemical weapons are delivered in gas or liquid forms with dust (solid) deliveries rarely if ever used. The gas, liquid, or dust can be seen during delivery — and often for some time afterward. The chemical weapon will usually inflict its casualties quickly to keep up with the fast pace of modern warfare.
Avoiding ill effects of chemical weapons
While a drop of nerve gas on the skin can be dangerous for an enemy to get an area saturated enough to make sure that at least one drop gets there isn’t all that easy to do over a very wide area of space.
For example, to attack a population in a square mile with nerve gas (which, drop for drop, is about as deadly as chemical weapons come), nearly a whole ton of the deadly material is needed. Less than that, and the area covered is much smaller, or anyone in the square mile stands a good chance of being missed.
Because of this, areas that are dangerous during a chemical attack are relatively small, and delivery takes place only for a short time before the supplies of the agent are depleted. So, if a little common sense is exercised and care is taken to avoid areas under actual attack by chemical weapons, a person could avoid any ill effects.
But even if an attack occurs quite close to you, or is even aimed at you, you still can survive even if you have no protective gear at all!
When first delivered, chemical agents can be easily seen as a vapor or cloud. Consequently, those who remain alert and take note of delivery of such a weapon can improve their survival chances by avoiding it.
After delivery, many chemical agents evaporate into invisible gases, which are still dangerous to some extent, even though invisible. However, they are still heavier than air. That being the case, avoiding low-lying areas also allows you to avoid the danger.
You stand a good chance of suffering no ill effects from a chemical attack if you avoid the initial barrage of liquids and then stay out of city streets, valleys, basements, and other low-lying areas. Currently, chemical agents are delivered in either persistent or non-persistent forms.
Non-persistent chemical agents
The differentiation between the two groups has to do with how long they will contaminate an area. Non-persistent agents are fast-acting and thin so that they quickly disperse to the point that an area is safe to be in within a day or perhaps even a few hours after an agent is released in it.
Non-persistent chemical weapons are most likely to be deployed ahead of rapidly-moving enemy assault troops since such chemicals create casualties and force the defending troops to mask and suit up while the attacking troops can move in unencumbered by masks or heavy protective suits. This article will teach you how gas masks work to protect you against chemical weapons.
And this is why troops use protective gear like masks and suits. They do so because they may be forced to “hold ground” during a chemical attack. Furthermore, they will make their presence known by fighting an aggressor so that a “second dose” of chemicals may be sent to them during a battle. But if you avoid getting into a situation where you’re having to hold ground (or are close to troops doing so), you could avoid needing such protective gear.
Persistent agents are designed to remain dangerous for long periods of time. This is generally achieved by thickening them into an oily goop that doesn’t evaporate quickly. For those without protective and decontamination equipment, an area contaminated with a persistent chemical weapon is best treated as a no-man’s land.
If you should find yourself in a shooting war, it is good to keep in mind the fact that chemical agents can be delivered to an area via artillery shells, bombs, or rockets. They can also be disseminated on a smaller scale with grenades, land mines, or aerosol sprays from aircraft or vehicles.
Whatever the delivery method, it will be noticeably different from similar standard weapons. A munitions burst will appear and sound much different, and its explosive effect will be smaller. Once exploded, a chemical weapon will often produce more smoke or “fog” than occurs with standard weapons.
When a non-persistent agent is released from a shell or other explosive device, it will form a small cloud that expands. As it grows cooler, it will tend to retain its shape for 30 seconds. After that, it may become invisible and will start moving with the speed and direction of any breeze or wind in the area.
Persistent chemical agents
Persistent agents (like VX nerve gas or distilled mustard) will be liquid droplets when delivered and will quickly settle onto the surface of the area below which they are released. These oily agents also float on the surface of water and cling to brush, giving off dangerous fumes.
Those moving through water or vegetation contaminated by persistent chemicals will find that the material will stick on them, greatly increasing the likelihood of doing harm. Important strategies when dealing with persistent agents are staying out of the area they’re in or staying out from under them while they’re being delivered.
Non-persistent agents will usually be watery and be easily blown about by the wind. Persistent agents will look like molasses, oil, or grease depending on the temperature and the degree to which they have been thickened and will fall to the earth more quickly.
Toxins, which can be highly persistent, may be in a liquid or powder form. Many agents affect animals (including birds and some types of insects) as well as human beings. Consequently, another good survival strategy is watching the animals in an area.
This can enable the observer to detect danger. Likewise, a survivor will be wary of smoke from unusual sources, unexplained liquids, powder, or mists. All can spell danger.
Your nose is also capable of giving you some warning that chemical weapons may be in an area. Smells like new-mown grass, flowers, etc., where such smells don’t belong is a warning signal. Although chemical agent “designers” strive for undetectable weapons, many do have definite odors that might warn those who are alert to such occurrences.
Mild exposures to many chemical agents — while not ideal from a long term health standpoint — aren’t necessarily deadly, either. Therefore, if you note early symptoms of chemical poisoning such as a running nose, eye tearing or irritation, tightness in the chest, breathing problems, or nausea, you can take steps to get away from a contaminated area and stand a good chance of surviving your exposure.
If you are trapped in a building and forced to stay there, you can still survive. Remembering that chemical weapons are heavier than air, you can minimize contamination by retreating to a high room and making it as airtight as possible by closing windows and sealing or taping all cracks in doors and windows if possible.
Once the attack has passed, you can either evacuate to a safer area or — if a non-persistent agent has been used — air out the rooms you’re in. In fact, it would be possible to remain relatively safe in a building during an all-out attack aimed at those on the street, even if you didn’t have a gas mask in such a situation.
If you’re outside during an attack (or evacuating out of a contaminated area), it’s important to avoid letting any large droplets of chemical agent drop onto you when it is first delivered. If some does get on your clothing, it should immediately be cut off or the clothing discarded before it can soak into your skin or cause you to breathe fumes from it.
Move to high ground
That done, you should remember that the fumes from the chemical agent are dangerous as well. These fumes are heavier than air. Moving to higher ground will improve your survival chances since it helps you avoid the gas on the ground or at least minimize the amount of concentration of the agent to which you’re exposed.
By the same token, it’s important to avoid low-lying areas like river beds, valleys, basements, or city streets having tall buildings on either side of them.
There is one exception when higher ground can be dangerous. This occurs during a period of temperature inversion. A temperature inversion takes place when warm air is cooled by the ground, while the air above it stays warm. In such a situation, a chemical agent’s fumes hug the ground with the cooler air holding their vapor close to the earth.
In such a condition, even non-persistent agents remain dangerous longer. The higher ground becomes dangerous when a draft is added to the temperature inversion. This draft can be created as the cool air warms up so that it will actually move uphill, carrying chemical vapors with it.
Temperature inversions occur when the weather suddenly warms up after a cool period (say, in the summer at the end of a cool night as the sun warms up the air). Such weather conditions are ideal for the delivery of chemical agents and a time when you must be especially wary of a chemical attack.
The worst time (from a military standpoint) for delivery a chemical attack is on a bright, sunny day when the ground is heated so that the air next to it is warm and rising. This upward air movement carries chemical fumes away from the ground so that they are quickly dispersed and diluted to harmless levels.
Now let’s suppose you’re out in an open field, and an enemy plane drops out of the sky to “dust” (with chemical weapons) a group of soldiers near you. How far away do you need to get from the battle to be safe?
If you’re upwind from the release, or if there’s a little breeze, you can be quite close and remain safe (provided you’re not attacked as well — care should be taken not to do anything which may cause an attack to be aimed at you).
If you’re downwind from the attack, you’re in a more dangerous position. A lot of variables coming into play, the amount of agent released, wind speed, and type of agent, can all create big differences. But one thing’s for sure, once an agent has been released, it follows the wind.
So it’s wise to move quickly away from the release site and to place distance between you and it if you’re close to it. If you have a bit of distance between you and the release site and the wind isn’t moving too fast, you might be able to move at a tight angle from the release so that you are no longer downwind to it.
Chemical agents are diluted by the air as the wind blows. Even with a massive attack, you start getting out of danger at 600 yards away from where the original cloud of liquid contaminant fell. Since the faster the wind blows, the more quickly an area becomes decontaminated, flat areas become decontaminated more quickly than rough areas since terrain causes a drop in wind speed. And areas which are windy are safer than those with only a breeze.
Just as warm air holds more moisture than cold, it can also hold more chemical fumes than cold air. This means that warm areas remain dangerous for a shorter time than cold ones. On the flip side of things, however, this means that an area this is contaminated is more immediately dangerous if you’re near it because the fumes are thicker in the air. Warm air is more dangerous, but it will be safer sooner with time.
With most agents, when the temperature approaches freezing, they become very inactive, with almost no evaporation taking place. Thus, in very cold weather, a heavily contaminated area can be traversed, provided you don’t become contaminated by stepping in the chemical agent while traveling through the area. You’ll find a snowstorm a very safe place during a chemical attack.
Rainstorms come in second in safety since water absorbs many chemical agents, and, for this reason, rain tends to wash chemical agent fumes out of the air while rain run-off will wash some agents off exposed areas as well.
However, care must be taken to avoid run-off from contaminated areas as it may contain concentrated chemical agents.
Sandy soil will usually absorb a chemical agent making it less dangerous to walk over but very dangerous to stay on or dig in since it may retain the agent for some time beneath the surface of the soil. Paved surfaces or hard clay soil will tend to keep chemical agents on their surfaces. Such areas are very dangerous initially but are safer with time than their sandy counterparts.
Most decontamination procedures are hard and time consuming to carry out. Therefore, your best and safest route is to avoid areas that are contaminated and to discard anything that you’re carrying, which has been contaminated (though, with non-persistent agents, it can be laid aside for several days after which the chemical will evaporate away).
If you don’t manage to avoid getting your hide soaked in a chemical agent, things are serious, but all is not necessarily lost if you get contaminated clothing off and get yourself cleaned up properly right away.
This is best done by first getting out of the contaminated area. Getting cleaned up is of little use if you’ll be contaminated again. That done, you should quickly shed any clothing or other belongings which are contaminated, move away from them (remembering to get upwind or far away from them), shower, and redress in uncontaminated clothing. That done, you’ll probably also need to seek out first aid immediately.
In removing agents from the skin, running water — and lots of it — is a must. A shower is ideal if large areas of your skin are covered and much better than a bath (where you sit in the chemicals, and they have a chance to soak through your skin). Since some chemical weapons will cause acid burns I recommend reading this article on treating acid and base burns.
Lots of soap, detergents, and shampoo should be used since they will help to lift a chemical agent off your skin. Warm water — if available — works better than cold water for this purpose
Organic solvents like alcohol or acetone can be used to lift off agents but can be damaging to the skin. Sodium carbonate (washing soda, sal soda, or laundry soda) can be mixed with water and used for decontamination and will actually neutralize some chemical agents.
Remember that water or other solvents only clean agents away. They don’t neutralize them, so run-off will be full of agents and, therefore, dangerous.
It should also be noted that protective gear, even if you have it, won’t guarantee your survival in a contaminated area for any great length of time. New solvents are being developed which penetrate protective suits and which will defeat a gas mask’s filter in a short time. Even older chemical agents could be placed in such a liquid solvent and become even more dangerous. So, even if you’re fully equipped, your best survival strategy is always total avoidance of exposure to chemical weapons.
That caveat in mind, since most chemical weapons are most lethal if they enter the body through the mouth and nose, a protective mask can greatly improve your chances of survival. Given the reasonable cost of a protective mask, having one in your house or car trunk is good insurance.
As we’ve seen, you don’t need an expensive chemical suit or even a mask to survive a chemical attack. A little common sense and know-how of chemical weapons can help you avoid the dangers involved. You can survive a chemical attack with just your wits and courage.
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