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Medical Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats

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In recent years, toxic chemicals have attracted the attention of terrorists because of the potentially devastating effects that such weapons could have on the general population. In 1995, the Japanese terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo used the nerve gas sarin in an attack in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and causing more than 5,000 people to seek medical attention following the incident. More recently in Iraq, the targeting of chlorine storage tanks and production facilities by Al Queda have demonstrated a committed interest in finding new ways to cause disruption and devastation in a community.

The number and variety of toxic chemicals that pose a health risk to the civilian population is extensive. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has identified approximately 100 toxic industrial chemicals, and the Environmental Protection Agency lists more than 600 chemicals in its Toxic Release Inventory. Animal, plant, and bacterial toxins that can be synthesized are also potential chemical threats, especially if they are produced in large quantities.

Terrorists could employ any of the traditional chemical warfare agents, ranging from nerve gas and cyanide to pulmonary or vesicating (blister) agents, to achieve their goals. Industrial targets or the combined use of chemicals with explosives only highlight the need to address such threats with safe and effective medical countermeasures.

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Last Updated February 28, 2008