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Chemical and Biological Agents

Background Description

This presentation treats with chemical and biological agents. A disaster relating to either can take place as a result of accident or a deliberate act of war or of terrorism.  In the case of war or terrorism one might think of them as weapons of mass destruction or as they are also known weapons of mass effect.

These, weapons of mass destruction or effect, are divided into five types. “The five basic categories of weapons of mass effect are:

    1.  chemicals,
    2.  biological pathogens and toxins,
    3.  radioactive material,
    4.  nuclear devices, and
    5.  nonconventional high-yield explosives” (McGlown, 2004, p. 28).

Here, we will be concerned with the first two categories, i.e., chemical and biological agents, whether released by accident or deliberately. The actual video associated herewith is one of a series of four addressing the topic of Disaster Preparedness: (1) Natural Disasters; (2) Chemical & Biological Agents; (3) Pandemic Influenza & Emerging Infections; and (4) Disaster Volunteers.  The series was produced by the University of California and may be accessed online - http://www.uctv.tv/disaster - should the reader hereof wish to view all components (each being a little less than an hour in length) of the series.

Principal Objectives

After a viewing this video, the individual should have a basic understanding of the following highlights:

    • Types of biological and chemical agent classifications
    • Symptoms associated with various types of agents
    • Effects to be expected from exposure to chemical and biological agents
    • Origin and history of chemical and biological weapons
    • Difference between first responders and first receivers
    • Recognition of symptoms, preventing, treating, and self protection

Overview Discussion

According to the uctv.tv website, the presentation covers a variety of subjects related to the overall topic by stating, “Anthrax, nerve gas, industrial accidents. The thought of such things strikes fear in all of us. Thankfully, there are systems in place if such an event should occur. Join Drs. John Blossom and Christian Sandrock as they talk with disaster response experts about how healthcare providers - often the first responders in these cases - can best detect, report and respond to chemical and biological events.”

Also according to the uctv.tv website, the term disaster is defined in a context distinct from usual dictionary type definitions: “But, in emergency management it is more important to remember that disaster is any event that overwhelms the local response capabilities.”  In effect this generally requires that extraordinary measures be in place to address such an overwhelming event.

Chemical and biological agents are typically classified according to subtypes. “Chemical agents fall into the following three categories:

    1. Chemicals developed specifically for use in combat operations
    2. Chemicals used widely in industry but adaptable for use by the military
    3. Chemicals used exclusively in industrial settings but having potential to cause
        widespread contamination or serious disability if accidentally or intentionally
        released” (McGlown, 2004, p. 29).

Another way to think of these is that chemical weapons include nerve agents and vesicants which are both military chemical weapons. Secondly, there are dual-use chemical agents involving choking agents and blood agents.  Thirdly, there are toxic industrial chemicals and toxic industrial materials.

        Within the biological pathogens and toxins basic category of weapons of mass effect, a further division may be made.  “Biological weapons fall into:
    • Pathogens: Bacteria or viruses that have the potential to cause serious illness or
      death in plants, animals, or humans.
    • Toxins: Chemicals produced by living organisms” (California, 2007, p. 26).

Emergency, disaster relief, and medical personnel can be exposed directly to chemical and biological agents as well as becoming victims of secondary exposure. Both types of exposure can be deadly and the dangers can be multiplied in cases where the cause has not been identified; particularly, with a biological agent attack because of incubation period or with a chemical attack involving difficult to detect agents, i.e., colorless and scentless.

A major part of preparedness involving these types of threats relates the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). In addition to using PPE properly, the matter of decontamination is another of the critical factors in dealing with both chemical and biological agents.

Various segments of emergency/disaster response personnel face differing challenges related to chemical and biological agents. This necessitates being prepared, especially in the areas of PPE and decontamination, with measure that will suitably protect such personnel from what is/could be an unknown threat.


The video is primarily a “talking heads” type of presentation. That is, it includes a series of experts presenting information and thoughts, a discussion style video. This is an effective way of covering a topic of this sort. The video contains visuals that complement the material being discussed and provides the viewer with a sense of greater understanding and observational participation than would otherwise be the case. An example would be the suits, gas masks, etc. used as well as decontamination. The video presents a considerable amount of information and is well worth the viewing for anyone who may have an interest in this topic or who is engaged in emergency/disaster activities. Some might even say that everyone should view it but in the opinion of this writer, that would be excessive.

Video Access

        The video presentation, “Disaster Preparedness: Chemical & Biological Agents” may be viewed by accessing either of the following two direct links:

    1. http://www.uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=16927
    2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wO1IPMiU37Q


California InterContinental University.  (2007).  Interactive Learning Guide:
        HCM 620 Managing Disaster - Perspectives for Healthcare Leaders.
        Diamond Bar, California:  CalU Press.
McGlown, K. J. (Ed.).  (2004).  Terrorism and Disaster Management:  Preparing
        Healthcare leaders for the New Reality (1st ed.).  Chicago, Illinois: Health
        Administration Press.

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