Chemical Emergencies and Weapons

Chemical weapons are toxic chemicals deliberately used to cause chaos or fear or to harm people.  While biological weapons are viruses or bacteria ("germs") that cause a person to become sick and possibly spread their illness to other people, chemical weapons are simply poisons.  If chemical weapons were to be used, the most likely method of attack would be the release of a vapor or liquid into a public space.  While some chemical agents have a distinct color or smell, most are impossible to detect without sophisticated equipment.

Some examples of chemical weapons are:

  • Nerve agents(such as sarin, which was used in the Tokyo subway attacks in 1995) work by causing the paralysis of muscles.
  • Mustard gas, which was used in World War I, causes irritation of the eyes, skin and the respiratory system if inhaled.  It may smell like mustard, garlic, onions or horseradish; it is yellow-brown in color.
  • Cyanide causes confusion, drowsiness and shortness of breath if inhaled.  It also affects the central nervous system.  Cyanide has the odor of bitter almonds.  However, half the population is incapable of detecting the smell.
  • Phosgene can cause severe breathing problems and fatal lung congestion.  It has a characteristic sweet smell of newly mown hay or grass.
  • Ricin(a toxin from the castor bean), can cause weakness, fever, cough or respiratory distress, and the buildup of liquid around the heart when inhaled.

Chemical Emergencies Fact Sheets

Chemical Weapons Fact Sheets

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