Font Size
A
A
A
1
...

Chemical Warfare

Risk of Exposure

Injury from chemical weapon agents, known as CWAs, may result from industrial accidents, military stockpiling, war, or a terrorist attack.

Industrial accidents are a significant potential source of exposure to chemical agents. Chemicals such as phosgene, cyanide, anhydrous ammonia, and chlorine are used widely. These chemicals are frequently transported by industry. The accidental release of a methylisocyanate cloud (composed of phosgene and isocyanate) was implicated in the Bhopal, India, disaster in 1984.

  • Chemical weapons first were used in 1915, when the German military released 168 tons of chlorine gas at Ypres, Belgium, killing an estimated 5,000 Allied troops.
  • Two years later, the same battlefields saw the first deployment of sulfur mustard. Sulfur mustard was the major cause of chemical casualties in World War I.
  • CWAs have been used in at least 12 conflicts since, including the first Persian Gulf War (Iraq-Iran War). The Iraqi military also used chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds during the second Persian Gulf War.
  • Civilians also have been exposed inadvertently to chemical weapons many years after weapon deployment during war. Some 50,000 tons of mustard shells were disposed of in the Baltic Sea following World War I. Since then, numerous fishermen have been burned accidentally while hauling leaking shells aboard boats. Leaking mustard shells also have injured collectors of military memorabilia and children playing on old battlefields.

Although a number of international treaties have banned the development, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons, these agents reportedly are still being produced or stockpiled in several countries.

Within the last decade, terrorists deployed chemical weapons against civilian populations for the first time in history. The release of sarin in Matsumoto, Japan, in June 1994 by the extremist Aum Shinrikyo cult left 7 dead and 280 injured. The following year, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin vapor in the Tokyo subway system during morning rush hour, leaving 12 dead and sending more than 5,000 casualties to local hospitals.

Several characteristics of chemical weapon agents lend themselves to terrorist use.

  • Chemicals used in CWAs are widely available, and recipes for CWA production may be found on the Internet.
  • CWAs are transported easily and may be delivered by a variety of routes.
  • Chemical agents often are difficult to protect against and quickly incapacitate the intended targets.
  • Most civilian medical communities are inadequately prepared to deal with a chemical terrorist attack.
Medical Author:
Medical Editor:
Medical Editor:
Medical Editor:

Must Read Articles Related to Chemical Warfare

Biological Warfare
Biological Warfare Biological weapons include any organism (such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi) or toxin found in nature that can be used to kill or injure people. (Toxins are po...learn more >>
Personal Protective Equipment
Personal Protective Equipment Personal protective equipment (PPE) refers to the respiratory equipment, garments, and barrier materials used to protect rescuers and medical personnel from exp...learn more >>




Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

CBRNE - Chemical Warfare Mass Casualty Management »

This article is for managers who prepare hospital operational plans, for leaders responsible for response activities within a hospital, and for hospital health care providers.

Read More on Medscape Reference »


Medical Dictionary