The risk of a chemical or biological emergency affecting a
community exists in times of war or peace. Both are capable of causing short-
or long-term damage on a society. Indeed, they have been proven throughout
history to have devastating effects whether used purposefully or through
accidents or natural disasters.
Chemical warfare uses the toxic aspect of various substances
as a form of weaponry. Biological warfare
uses living organisms to wreak havoc. Along with nuclear warfare, they make up
the triad of weapons of mass destruction (also known as “WMDs”).
A chemical weapon is any weapon that uses a man-made chemical to kill people. An example would be chlorine gas, a substance used to deadly effect during WWI. A biological weapon uses bacteria or viruses to achieve the same purpose. While the goals are similar, there are significant differences between the two.
Some believe that chemical weapons are a product of “modern”
times and were not used before WWI. However, even ancient tribal cultures have
used poison-tipped arrows to increase their lethality.
While poisoning was the cause of fatalities with arrows, other chemical agents killed in their own way. Gunpowder is a mixture of chemicals developed by 9th century Chinese which caused (and still causes) a great amount of trauma. Around the 7th century, the Byzantines are thought to have produced “Greek fire”, possibly a primitive form of napalm. It’s interesting to note that the formula for “Greek fire” as used in ancient times is still unknown.
Note: Although chemicals are involved in their production, gunpowder and other agents that cause damage through explosive or incendiary means are today considered to be “conventional” warfare.
While some consider chemical warfare to be “modern”, there is no question that biological weapons have used disease-causing microbes for centuries. During the Plague years, besieging armies would either poison water supplies with infected bodies or catapult them over the city walls. During the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763) in North America, the British transported blankets from smallpox victims and gave them as “gifts” to Native Americans.
Chemical agents differ from biological ones in that only
those who come in contact with them are affected. Biological weapons, however,
have the potential to sicken those not originally in the area through airborne
means, bodily fluids, or other methods of transmission.
Although biological agents have the potential for
pandemic-like spread of infection, it takes quite a while to reach that point. Once
the disease outbreak occurs, however, it has the potential to cause far more
casualties that a chemical weapon. On the other hand, chemical weapons have the
“benefit” of causing rapid, if not instantaneous, ill effects without having
the expense of maintaining laboratories to develop and weaponize micro-organisms.
In future articles, we’ll discuss how different chemical and biological entities can affect the human body and cause mass casualties. Also, we’ll discuss chemical and biological accidents and what the proper procedure should be to decrease their impact.
Joe Alton MD
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