Because of ongoing concerns about potential terrorist attacks, the U.S. government is working to improve overall preparation against terrorism. One aspect of this preparation is to learn more about protecting ourselves against possible attacks with biological, chemical and radiological agents that can be used.
In the event of a potential bioterrorism event, you will probably learn about it through an emergency radio or TV broadcast. You might get a text or phone call through the AlertSCC emergency notification system if you have signed up. Or, emergency response workers may come to your door with specific instructions.
Unlike other forms of terrorism, like an explosion, a biological attack may or may not be obvious right away. While it is possible that you will see signs of a biological attack, it is perhaps more likely that local health care workers will report a pattern of unusual illness or there will be a wave of sick people seeking emergency medical attention.
A chemical contamination can be caused by both an accident or intentional release.
Contamination can be caused by an accident, such as when an industrial tank with toxic chemicals crashes and releases poison. An intentional release can also be caused by an individual or a group that can use a toxic gas, liquid, or solid that can poison people and the environment.
Possible signs of a chemical attack include many people suffering from watery eyes, twitching, choking, having trouble breathing, or losing coordination. Many sick or dead birds, fish, or small animals are also cause for suspicion.
A radiation emergency could be a “dirty bomb” or an accident in a nuclear reactor that contaminates a specific area with radioactive materials.
People are exposed to small amounts of radiation every day, both from naturally occurring sources, such as elements in the soil or cosmic rays from the sun, and man-made sources. Man-made sources include some electronic equipment, such as microwave ovens and television sets; medical sources, such as x-rays, certain diagnostic tests, and treatments; and from nuclear weapons testing.
The amount of radiation from natural or man-made sources to which people are exposed is usually small. A radiation emergency, such as a nuclear power plant accident or a terrorist event, could expose people to small or large doses of radiation, depending on the situation.
- Biological Fact Sheet: Human Pathogens, Biotoxins, and Agricultural Threat (pdf)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Bioterrorism