Chemical Weapons and Warfare Agents

What You Need To Know

Two figures in hazmat suits with gas masks enter a bunker doorway

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A chemical weapon utilizes a manufactured chemical to incapacitate, harm, or kill people. Strictly speaking, a chemical weapon relies on the physiological effects of a chemical, so agents used to produce smoke or flame⁠—as herbicides or for riot control⁠—are not considered chemical weapons. Certain chemical weapons can kill large numbers of people (as weapons of mass destruction), while others are designed to injure or terrorize people. In addition to having potentially horrific effects, chemical weapons are of great concern because they are cheaper and easier to manufacture and deliver than nuclear or biological weapons.

Types of Weapons

The earliest chemical weapon wasn't an esoteric chemical concoction. During World War I, chlorine gas was used as a chemical weapon, released in massive clouds by the German army to cause lung damage and terror downwind of its release. Modern chemical weapons include the following types of agents:

  • Choking agents (phosgene, chlorine)
  • Blister agents (nitrogen mustard, lewisite)
  • Nerve agents (tabun, sarin, VX)

How Chemical Weapons Work

Chemical agents may be released as tiny droplets, similar to the action of a bug bomb used to release insecticide. For a chemical weapon to cause harm, it must come in contact with the skin or mucous membranes, be inhaled, or be ingested. The activity of the chemical agent depends on its concentration. In other words, below a certain level of exposure, the agent won't kill. Below a certain level of exposure, the agent won't even cause harm.

Protective Measures

Because most don't have gas masks or atropine (an injectable used when exposed to nerve agents), the best defense against chemical weapons is being informed. Realistically, you won't be on a battlefield, and are more likely to encounter an accidental chemical spill than a chemical attack. Still, in any terror or military situation, chemical weapons are far likelier than nuclear or biological weapons. There are several steps that any member of the general public should take to limit your exposure and protect yourself in the event of chemical warfare.

  • Stay Calm: Don't panic, and try to use common sense. Have a radio (with batteries) and keep up with the news. Pay attention to civil defense advisories and think before acting. Your best defense is to face the situation with a level head.
  • Seek High Ground: Chemical agents are denser than air. They sink to low-lying areas and follow wind/weather patterns. Seek the highest story of a building or the top of a natural land formation.
  • Seek Open Spaces or a Self-Contained Air Supply: From a terrorist perspective, a densely populated area is a better target than somewhere uncrowded. Therefore, the threat of a chemical attack is lessened in rural areas. It makes sense to isolate your air supply because most chemical agents disperse after a certain amount of time (a notable exception is VX, which is designed to persist). Avoided exposed is a good protective measure.
  • Use Your Senses: How do you know if you have been exposed to a chemical agent? You may not be able to see or smell one. In pure forms, most chemical weapon agents are clear liquids. Impure chemicals may be yellowish liquids. Most are odorless and tasteless, but some have a slightly sweet or fruity smell. Skin irritation, respiratory distress, and gastrointestinal upset all may signal exposure to a chemical agent. However, if you don't die within minutes, you probably won't die at all. Therefore, if you believe you have been exposed to a chemical agent, seek medical attention as soon as you feel secure.