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Over a decade ago there was a lot of worry that terrorists might use weapons of mass destruction against us. I was interviewed by a local radio station after a government official suggested that duct tape and plastic would solve all of our problems. My comment was along the lines of “I think someone ought to duct tape a plastic bag over his head.” The radio station requested a somewhat less controversial comment. But the question remains – will duct tape and plastic help at all?
Somewhat more recently I was at a briefing about what would happen if a terrorist group set off a nuclear weapon in a US city. I was astounded to see that more than a half million lives could be saved if people take the correct action immediately – as in before the first public service announcement can hit the airwaves. And, surprisingly, these same actions can help out in virtually any WMD attack (at least, in the moments immediately following the attack). The bottom line is that what you know – and what you do – at the time of an attack is going to save your life (or not, if you don’t know what to do). If you wait for a public service announcement you’ve waited too long.
So – here’s what you should do the moment you realize that an attack is taking place. Go inside. That’s it – head indoors, shut the doors and windows, shut off any ventilation that draws air from the outside, and move towards the center of the building and (if possible) into the basement or lower levels. Now let’s looks at why this works.
You’ll recognize a nuclear attack by a hugely bright flash (if it’s a surface or airburst), a fireball (again if it’s a surface burst), and a towering pillar of smoke, dust, and fire. There might or might not be a mushroom cloud – a relatively small bomb that goes off underground might not have much of a flash at all and will likely have no mushroom cloud – but there will still be the pillar ascending skyward and this is where the threat comes from. Incidentally, there should also be a strong shock wave – since sound (and shockwaves) travel faster through rock than through air the ground part will hit first followed by the air shock.
If there’s a nuclear attack then the immediate risk comes from the heat and blast wave from the detonation itself – anyone too close to the blast will be killed outright. But further afield (more than a half mile or so away, depending on the yield) the risk is from radiation from the fallout; the fallout will be the consistency of fine sand and it’ll fall straight down. So if you go inside and towards the center of the building you’ll be putting distance between you and the source of the radiation (remember to stay on a lower floor to also put distance between you and any fallout on the roof) and this will reduce your radiation dose considerably – by up to a factor of 200, depending on the size of the building. Incidentally – DO NOT try to run away from the fallout plume if it’s headed your way. First, you can’t outrun it. Second, if you are fleeing directly away from the explosion you’ll be running in the same direction the plume is traveling, which means you might well be running down the centerline of the plume – the second-worst action you can take (the worst would be running directly towards the explosion). If you are determined to flee (which is not recommended) you need to move perpendicular to the prevailing winds to get out of the plume as quickly as possible. But – again – this is NOT recommended; sheltering indoors is the best thing to do. Go inside, turn on the radio or television and find a working station, and stay inside until you are told it’s safe to evacuate (or until you find out that you’re out of the plume).
If there’s a chemical attack your first indication might be a cloud of gas moving towards you that leaves people choking, coughing, or passing out. But some chemical agents are invisible so you might not see the gas itself – you might just see people starting to choke or fall unconscious. In any event, chances are that people’s reactions to the attack might well be your first clue that something’s amiss.
If you think there’s a chemical attack you have two main options – run or hide. If you’re trying to run then, as with a nuclear attack, you should move perpendicular to the direction of the wind (unless the plume is moving so slowly that you are sure you can outrun it) until you’re clear of the plume’s path. But keep in mind that the wind usually has more stamina than a person, unless that person is a runner. You don’t want to find yourself gasping for breath as the plume catches up with you.
If you’re not sure about running for it then you’ll need to hide and, as with a nuclear attack, the best place to hide is indoors. Here, too, you’ll want to shut the doors and windows and to shut down all ventilation that pulls air in from the outside. Most chemical agents will disperse fairly quickly, some will be degraded through chemical reactions. But others are remarkably persistent, and if nerve agents have been used, even invisible traces can be dangerous. So here, too, you should wait inside until you hear definitively that it’s safe for you to go outside, or until emergency responders arrive and tell you how to evacuate safely. Escape hoods, which I discussed in one of my previous posts, might provide help, but only if they are designed to filter out the exact agent that’s in the air.
Rounding out the WMD trifecta is biological agents and these are a lot tougher. First, they don’t act quickly so you’re not going to have any indication as to what’s happened. If someone releases anthrax into the air, for example, you won’t see people dropping like flies because the disease needs time to build its numbers to the point of causing symptoms. Think about it – if you’re exposed to somebody with a cold or the flu you don’t start sneezing or feeling achy right away; it takes a few days. And then the disease follows a course – you might be sick for several days or a week with a cold and perhaps a week or two with the flu – biological weapons also follow a course. Incubation periods might be as short as a day or as long as a few weeks – but there is an incubation period. The bottom line is that the first indication of an attack might not come for a day or so – too long for you to flee the scene or to shelter indoors. Here, public health will be the key to making it through the attack – first to recognize that there’s been an attack, then to immunize or treat those exposed.Finally, although it’s not really a weapon of mass destruction, a quick word about radiological weapons. To be honest with you, a dirty bomb is unlikely to kill anyone with radiation and, even in a worst-case situation, not many – certainly not as many as the other scenarios. But even if the risk is low it’s best to reduce it as much as possible. In addition, if someone sets off a bomb, whether it’s laced with radioactivity or not, you still don’t want to inhale whatever it emits – even simply smoke can hurt you. Here, too, it’s best to go indoors, shut the doors and windows, and shut off the ventilation system to avoid sucking contaminated debris into your building. And, as mentioned earlier, tune in to the news and wait for instructions – as soon as your emergency responders have a handle on the situation instructions will be given over the air or responders will come to your building to let you know how to stay safe.
The bottom line is that one way to stay safe is pretty much constant no matter what has happened – shelter indoors with the doors and windows closed (and ventilation isolated from the outdoors), listen for instructions on radio or television, and wait until you’re told it’s safe to evacuate. Or, as stated in Great Britain, “Go in, stay in, and tune in.” And as far as duct tape and plastic goes – well, it can’t hurt, but your safety plan should include more than just this. It probably won’t keep bacteria or viruses out of your home (or wherever you’re sheltering), but putting it up will at least keep you indoors – and it might help a little with anything that’s floating in the air.
About the Author: Andrew Karam is a board-certified health physicist with 34 years of experience in his field. He has earned a BA and MS in Geological Sciences and a PhD in Environmental Science, all from the Ohio State University. He has presented over 100 invited lectures and scientific talks at meetings in the US, Europe, South America, and Asia. Dr. Karam currently works on issues related to radiological and nuclear counter-terrorism; in the past he has been in charge of radiation safety for a major research university and hospital, as a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and as a private consultant. He has also undertaken a number of projects internationally, working in Kuwait, Dubai, Paraguay, Uruguay, Cambodia, Cyprus, and Lithuania – his most recent overseas project involved traveling to Japan in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami and reactor meltdowns in Fukushima. He is the author of over two dozen scientific and technical papers, over 200 encyclopedia articles on various aspects of science, and several hundred editorials, essays, and articles for a variety of publications for both scientists and the general public. He has also written 16 books, including his memoir of life on a fast-attack submarine, Rig Ship for Ultra Quiet. Dr. Karam is married with five children and he currently lives in Brooklyn.