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Chemical and Biological Releases Including Terrorism

Children are particularly vulnerable to a group of chemical and biological agents that may be released into the environment by the military during warfare, by terrorists and through criminal acts by single individuals or groups, and by accidental releases. On August 21, 2013, the Syrian military fired rockets containing sarin nerve gas into civilian urban areas in the suburbs of Damascus, killing 1429 people including 426 children and injuring at least 2200 others. From April to July 2012 in several provinces in Afghanistan, terrorists released pesticides in girls’ schools at least 16 times, injuring 1383 people including 1355 children. From April to August 2010 in Afghanistan, terrorists carried out 20 gas attacks on girls’ schools, injuring 672 people including 636 children. In Bhopal, India on December 2-3, 1984, an accidental release of methyl isocyanate gas killed 3787 people and injured 558,125 people including 200,000 children. (See endnote 10.) The chemical groups of greatest concern are: nerve agents that can be absorbed through intact skin, vesicants released as aerosols causing severe skin burning and wounds; choking agents causing pulmonary injury; cyanogens causing respiratory distress, coma and death; and incapacitating agents, which are easily obtainable and designed to frighten and hurt people. Biological agents include smallpox, ricin, etc.

Exposure to chemical or biological agents may be through airborne releases from crop-dusting airplanes and ventilation systems in closed areas. Exposure may be through contaminated water supplies. Exposure may be through contaminated food.

Children are particularly vulnerable because of their developmental and physiological differences from adults. (See the section “Uniqueness and Stages of Development of the Child Increased by Environmental Stresses” above) For the same amount of contaminants and the same length of exposure, children will suffer disproportionately more than adults. Substances in the air which are heavier than air will be more concentrated at the lower regions both on the inside and outside. Consequently, children will breathe in greater levels of the contaminants. Once children are exposed to the contaminants (they are more vulnerable and less able to understand danger and leave the area, and their immune systems are immature), they dehydrate much more rapidly, and there is a greater risk of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Best Practices for Biological and Chemical Releases Including Terrorism (See endnote 9)

  • • Create an all-hazards response system to chemical and biological releases.
  • • Establish a specially trained HAZMAT team to respond to anticipated terrorist attacks.
  • • Train medical personnel to recognize the symptoms of biological and chemical warfare agents and report them immediately to the all-hazards response system.
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