'Important Time' to Prep Country for Chemical Weapons Attacks

WASHINGTON – The head of the nation’s chemical defense program warned that the nation faces “an important time” when it comes to addressing the potential for toxic attacks and the federal government is working with local agencies to both defend against assaults and go over how to respond should one occur.

Appearing before the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications, Dr. Mark Kirk, director of the Chemical Defense Program in the Department of Homeland Security, reminded lawmakers that chemical agents are used to kill or incapacitate large numbers of people, cause permanent or long-lasting harm, contaminate critical infrastructure and create uncertainty, fear and panic.

“Although the United States and many countries around the world have since banned chemical weapons and committed to controlling their precursors, these materials continue to be a threat today,” Kirk said. “Evidence shows sarin has been used in Syria and the toxic, industrial chemical chlorine allegedly has been used in multiple attacks in Iraq and Syria since 2007.”

Chemical weapons’ recipes, dispersion methods and manuals on how to use them are readily found on the Internet and are easily available to potential terrorists who wish to do the U.S. and other nations harm.

“Readily accessible chemicals are used in the United States by those committing ‘chemical suicide’ and recently chlorine was deliberately released in a Rosemont, Ill., hotel affecting a group attending a convention,” Kirk told the panel.

Even small-scale attacks, Kirk said, carry a large and lasting impact. Twenty years ago on March 20, 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult attacked the Tokyo subway by intentionally releasing sarin. Twelve people died, about 1,200 people showed signs of poisoning and 5,500 sought medical care. Nearly 250 first responders and hospital staff developed adverse effects from secondary exposure.

Even that can be considered a relatively minor assault given the chemical warfare agent used.

Government officials can plan for chemical threats but time, Kirk said, is a “dangerous element.”

“Chemical incidents often occur abruptly, with many victims falling ill at once,” he said. “Protective movements and life-saving treatments -- and the key decisions that facilitate these actions -- must occur very quickly to make a difference. This rapid response requirement necessitates that communities stabilize incidents on their own, often before specialized resources and federal assets can mobilize.”

During the early stages of many chemical events, medical personnel and first responders may find themselves operating “in the blind,” having to react immediately to a threat before complete information is available, requiring them to sift through reports to determine the difference between accurate and misleading accounts. That can prove difficult, Kirk said, and key information about the alleged chemical may not yet be known.

“Responders can suffer injury if they fail to use adequate personal protection for the threat they face,” he said. “Fear from the public and inaccurate information can overwhelm health systems and make it difficult to determine the real scale of an incident.”

The Department of Homeland Security is working diligently to strengthen the nation’s chemical defense capabilities and is providing support for community-level capacity-building. Several government-funded demonstration projects are enhancing the agency’s understanding of the need for immediate response at the community level following a large-scale chemical incident. The information will help the Chemical Defense Program facilitate the building of tools to intervene at critical points and optimize the emergency response system.

“The most important direction moving forward is translating our findings into implementation plans and actionable steps,” he said. “We intend to share our collection of guidance, best practices, and newly developed decision-aids with all communities. We plan to partner with other agencies and relevant organizations to share our findings so that we can assist in the creation of training and education methods that will help decision-makers at all levels operate within a structured environment even during the chaotic first moments of a chemical incident, and optimize key information sharing in order to make sound, critical decisions.”

Other officials appearing before the subcommittee said that the effort to address potential chemical weapons attacks needs more money. Essex County, N.J., Sheriff Armando Fontoura said it’s necessary for the federal government to “lead the way.”

Fontoura said his county, a large population base that includes the city of Newark, includes one of the nation’s busiest ports. Enhanced Homeland Security funding has allowed inspectors to go from checking out 10 percent of the shipping containers being handled to almost 90 percent.

“We need to do better -- we need to inspect them all,” he told the subcommittee.

Emergency agencies in Essex County have conducted drills, Fontoura told lawmakers, to prepare for attacks. But federal funds are necessary to provide greater security for potential assault sites.

Dr. Christina Catlett, associate director of the Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, Department of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said budget restraints are limiting the ability of hospitals to prepare for chemical attacks. She added that training should be improved, noting that too many medical workers are poorly prepared.

Catlett recommended increased research funding to determine what medical facilities need to be prepared for and determine those areas that require improvement.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), the subcommittee chairwoman, acknowledged that the nation finds itself “at a pivotal time in our fight against terrorists around the world.”

“ISIS is better resourced, more brutal, and more organized than any terrorist group to date,” she said. “We know that, given the opportunity, terrorists will acquire and use military grade chemical weapons or other chemical agents in their attacks. In fact, earlier this year, CENTCOM reported that a coalition air strike killed ISIS’ chemical weapons expert. Reports have also indicated that ISIS used chlorine gas in their attacks last year.”

McSally called a terrorist attack using chemical agents “a low probability, high consequence scenario.” A chemical attack, she said, could result in mass casualties and significant economic losses.

“In light of this, we must be vigilant and ensure our first responders and medical personnel are ready to respond,” she said.