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An Emergency Management Response to Syrian Nerve Agents

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mark Paine

Paine septChemical weapons have recently been used in Syria and this situation likely worries emergency responders around the globe. In reality, effective mitigation and response can be prepared with relatively few resources, as long as two principles are followed. First, emergency management guidelines must serve as a foundation. Second, military publications should be used to reference response procedures and to better understand the physical properties of chemical warfare agents. This article discusses the recent events in Syria and highlights the resources local responders can use to counteract chemical warfare agents in their communities.

According to an unclassified Strategic National Risk Assessment published in December 2011, chemical warfare agents are a potential threat. The events in Syria provide local responders another opportunity to reassess the possibility of a nerve agent release. The White House issued a statement August 21, 2013, which indicated that the Syrian government used nerve agents against their own people. By that time, media reports had already alluded to the use of sarin in the country. On Sept. 1, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed the use of sarin based on medical testing.

Local leaders may have a difficult time reducing anxiety levels if a community is threatened with the use of chemical warfare agents. Research has shown that these “weapons possess almost all of the features that are known to amplify perception of risk,” according to B. L. Williams and M.S. Magsumbol, in a 2007 article published in the American Journal of Public Health. The best way to respond to these situations is to follow established emergency management principles. For example, the American National Preparedness System (NPS) provides a strategic framework within which to combat all hazards, including chemical warfare agents.

Communities around the world, even outside of the United States, may benefit from following the emergency management guidelines outlined in the NPS. The system is divided into various frameworks including the National Mitigation Framework and the National Response Framework. These frameworks address the importance of conducting vulnerability assessments and planning for the response, and local communities are able to implement these policies using non-standardized procedure.

Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) responders are able to effectively prepare when complete intelligence reports are available. The importance of the National Preparedness Goal referred to as intelligence and information sharing is highlighted by the Syrian use of chemical warfare agents. In an official press release, the White House indicated that Syria had two types of nerve agents (VX and sarin) in their arsenal, although the specific agent used was not identified. Intelligence services likely knew that sarin was used and were simply waiting for conclusive proof before informing the public. Concurrent reports in the media identified sarin specifically, based on knowledge of Syrian regime operations.

VX and sarin have similar medical effects on humans, although they may require different field detection techniques. A CBRN responder’s sampling strategy for nerve agents will vary based on the available equipment. It is currently possible to purchase a field-portable gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer (GC/MS) that can detect sarin down to approximately 0.002 mg/m³, depending on the test method used. Older equipment can detect to approximately 0.1 mg/m³. The instruction manual for one field-portable GC/MS indicates that a separate sample collection adapter is required to detect VX, which complicates its use. In addition, the GC/MS is slower than older models of field detection equipment such as the improved chemical agent monitor. Local CBRN responders still need to develop sampling strategies based on the equipment available in their particular communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency publishes an Acute Exposure Guideline Level (AEGL) for a variety of chemical hazards. The purpose of an AEGL is to “describe the risk to humans resulting from once-in-a-lifetime, or rare, exposure to airborne chemicals.” The AEGL for sarin is 0.0010 mg/m³ for an 8-hour exposure, although additional absorption from skin exposures must also be considered. Even if a community had access to a portable GC/MS and readings were below the limit of detection, residual risk would remain. The only option at that point would be to wait for the agent to vaporize. Persistency durations are available in military guidance such as the Medical NBC Battlebook.

Local responders may utilize military guidance when conducting health risk assessments during chemical warfare agent attacks. According to Air Force tactics, techniques and procedures, sarin is considered nonpersistent and loses its ability to cause casualties after 10 to 15 minutes” and it “evaporates at the same rate as water.

In comparison, VX is persistent, which means that it “remains able to cause casualties for more than 24 hours to several days or weeks.” However, G-series agents (including sarin) may be thickened to “increase their persistence, and therefore the total amount penetrating the intact skin.” Chemical warfare agents may appear confusing, although information is readily available from military resources.

During the response to a sarin attack, the decontamination procedures will be similar to the ones for hazardous materials. Simple personal decontamination procedures are available on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website and they do not require any special equipment. Interestingly, Air Force guidance states that “[i]t is not necessary to quantitatively verify the effectiveness of [the decontamination team] during CBRN incidents.” If an attack occurs, hope is not lost; following simple decontamination procedures can save lives.

Emergency managers, regardless of their nationality, are able to respond to chemical warfare agent threats by following the principles outlined in the American NPS. Although chemicals such as VX and sarin are potent, they may be defended against locally by following procedures that have been published by the military and federal agencies. Even localities without CBRN response teams or CBRN detection equipment can benefit from following existing guidance. For example, in the absence of CBRN detection equipment, it remains possible to make decisions based on medical reports and chemical agent persistency tables. Although some communities may have limited resources, reducing risk by utilizing military publications and following established emergency management principles is possible.

Author: Mark Paine is a doctoral student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University.  He can be reached at mpaine@jsu.edu.

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