Andrew’s Note: There’s been a lot of discussion in the news lately of Syria readying munitions from it’s chemical weapons stockpile and I’ve received a few questions about chemical weapons in general. There’s a good reason chemical weapons are vilified and considered a weapon of mass destruction but a chemical environment is survivable. Much of this article discusses survival skills when faced with military grade chemical weapons, you are unlikely to encounter such weapons in the U.S. but the detection and avoidance of a chemical environment could save your life in the event of a terrorist attack similar to the Sarin attack on the Tokyo Subway by Aum Shinrikyo on March 20, 1995. The good news is that military grade chemical munitions have a lethality difficult for terrorists to duplicate. Here’s Chemical Attack Survival Skills which has been taken directly from FM 21-76, the U.S. Army Survival Manual [Approved For Public Release; Distribution is Unlimited]. For additional information check out the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Attack Fact Sheet and don’t forget to seek immediate medical attention if you think you’ve been exposed.
Chemical agent warfare is real. It can create extreme problems in a survival situation, but you can overcome the problems with the proper equipment, knowledge, and training. As a survivor, your first line of defense against chemical agents is your proficiency in individual nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) training, to include donning and wearing the protective mask and overgarment, personal decontamination, recognition of chemical agent symptoms, and individual first aid for chemical agent contamination. The SMCTs cover these subjects. If you are not proficient in these skills, you will have little chance of surviving a chemical environment. [Andrew's Note: remember that military grade chemical munition lethality is hard to duplicate]
The subject matter covered below is not a substitute for any of the individual tasks in which you must be proficient. The SMCTs [Soldier's Manual of Common Tasks] address the various chemical agents, their effects, and first aid for these agents. The following information is provided under the assumption that you are proficient in the use of chemical protective equipment and know the symptoms of various chemical agents.
The best method for detecting chemical agents is the use of a chemical agent detector. If you have one, use it. However, in a survival situation, you will most likely have to rely solely on the use of all of your physical senses. You must be alert and able to detect any clues indicating the use of chemical warfare.
General indicators of the presence of chemical agents are tears, difficult breathing, choking, itching, coughing, and dizziness. With agents that are very hard to detect, you must watch for symptoms in fellow survivors. Your surroundings will provide valuable clues to the presence of chemical agents; for example, dead animals, sick people, or people and animals displaying abnormal behavior.
Your sense of smell may alert you to some chemical agents, but most will be odorless. The odor of newly cut grass or hay may indicate the presence of choking agents. A smell of almonds may indicate blood agents.
Sight will help you detect chemical agents. Most chemical agents in the solid or liquid state have some color. In the vapor state, you can see some chemical agents as a mist or thin fog immediately after the bomb or shell bursts. By observing for symptoms in others and by observing delivery means, you may be able to have some warning of chemical agents. Mustard gas in the liquid state will appear as oily patches on leaves or on buildings.
The sound of enemy munitions will give some clue to the presence of chemical weapons. Muffled shell or bomb detonations are a good indicator.
Irritation in the nose or eyes or on the skin is an urgent warning to protect your body from chemical agents. Additionally, a strange taste in food, water, or cigarettes may serve as a warning that they have been contaminated.
As a survivor, always use the following general steps, in the order listed, to protect yourself from a chemical attack [the last two steps should be a prepper's focus]:
Your protective mask and overgarment are the key to your survival. Without these, you stand very little chance of survival. You must take care of these items and protect them from damage. You must practice and know correct self-aid procedures before exposure to chemical agents. The detection of chemical agents and the avoidance of contaminated areas is extremely important to your survival. Use whatever detection kits may be available to help in detection. Since you are in a survival situation, avoid contaminated areas at all costs. You can expect no help should you become contaminated. If you do become contaminated, decontaminate yourself as soon as possible using proper procedures. [see FEMA's After a Chemical Attack for more on decontamination]
If you find yourself in a contaminated area, try to move out of the area as fast as possible. Travel crosswind or upwind to reduce the time spent in the downwind hazard area. If you cannot leave the area immediately and have to build a shelter, use normal shelter construction techniques, with a few changes. Build the shelter in a clearing, away from all vegetation. Remove all topsoil in the area of the shelter to decontaminate the area. Keep the shelter’s entrance closed and oriented at a 90-degree angle to the prevailing wind. Do not build a fire using contaminated wood–the smoke will be toxic. Use extreme caution when entering your shelter so that you will not bring contamination inside.
As with biological and nuclear environments, getting water in a chemical environment is difficult. Obviously, water in sealed containers is your best and safest source. You must protect this water as much as possible. Be sure to decontaminate the containers before opening.
If you cannot get water in sealed containers, try to get it from a closed source such as underground water pipes. You may use rainwater or snow if there is no evidence of contamination. Use water from slow-moving streams, if necessary, but always check first for signs of contamination, and always filter the water as described under nuclear conditions. Signs of water source contamination are foreign odors such as garlic, mustard, geranium, or bitter almonds; oily spots on the surface of the water or nearby; and the presence of dead fish or animals. If these signs are present, do not use the water. Always boil or purify the water to prevent bacteriological infection.
It is extremely difficult to eat while in a contaminated area. You will have to break the seal on your protective mask to eat. If you eat, find an area in which you can safely unmask. The safest source of food is your sealed combat rations. Food in sealed cans or bottles will also be safe. Decontaminate all sealed food containers before opening, otherwise you will contaminate the food.
If you must supplement your combat rations with local plants or animals, do not use plants from contaminated areas or animals that appear to be sick. When handling plants or animals, always use protective gloves and clothing.