Biological and Chemical Weapons
Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium
Bacillus anthracis. The spore produces a toxin that can be fatal.
How is Spreads: The spores can spread by inhalation, a break in
the skin, or ingestion.
Symptoms: Usually symptoms appear within seven days. Inhalation
anthrax infection can start out like a common cold before acute symptoms
such as severe breathing problems and shock. Cutaneous (skin) symptoms
are a reddish brown sore that breaks open and forms a scab. Infection
by consuming contaminated food is characterized by inflammation of the
intestinal tract, leading to vomiting of blood and severe diarrhea. Death
can occur within 24 hours of the onset of acute symptoms.
Treatment: Antibiotics, including penicillin. A delay in the use
of antibiotics -- even in terms of hours -- may lessen chances for survival.
Botulism toxin -- the most potent lethal substance known to man -- is
made by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.
How it Spreads: Botulism toxin can be inhaled or ingested via
contaminated food or water.
Symptoms: Double vision, slurred speech, dry mouth and muscle weakness,
which also starts at the top of the body and works its way down. Symptoms
begin from six hours up to two weeks after exposure. Death can be caused
by paralysis of the breathing muscles within 24 hours.
Treatment: Botulism antitoxin, supplied by the CDC.
The causative agent of plague, Yersinia pestis, is found in rodents and
How it Spreads: The plague bacterium could be disseminated by aerosol,
resulting in the pneumonic form with the potential for secondary spread
of cases through respiratory droplets of those infected.
Symptoms: Within one to six days after exposure, the first signs
of illness are fever, headache and weakness, which can lead to shock and
death within two to four days.
Treatment: Antibiotics within 24 hours of first symptoms.
The variola virus, commonly known as smallpox, was eradicated from the
world in 1977, except for stocks of it kept in two World Health Organization
reference labs. It is unknown whether it is being held in other labs in
violation of WHO policy. Smallpox comes in two forms: variola minor or
the more deadly variola major.
How it Spreads: The smallpox virus is relatively stable and the
dose required for infection is small, making it a candidate for aerosol
release. It could then be further spread by the saliva droplets of infected
Symptoms: The incubation period is about 12 days following exposure.
Symptoms include fever, fatigue and aches, followed by a rash with lesions
and can lead to death within the first two weeks of the illness.
Treatment: No proven treatment at this time.
The causative agent of tularemia is Francisella tularensis, considered
one of the most infectious pathogenic bacteria known.
How it Spreads: Humans can become infected with tularemia through
bites by infected anthropods, contact with contaminated water or food,
and inhalation of infective aerosols.
Symptoms: Earlier symptoms of infection by aerosol could be similar
to those of influenza or atypical pneumonia. The symptoms can occur within
a few days or as long as two weeks after exposure. If untreated, the patient
experiences progressive weakness and weight loss and can die within two
Prevention: A vaccine is currently under review by the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration
Viral hemorrhagic fevers (VHF) refers to a group of illnesses caused by
several distinct families of viruses. While some of these viruses cause
relatively mild illnesses, others cause severe, life- threatening ones,
such as Ebola.
How it Spreads: Many VHF viruses are known to naturally reside
in an animal or insect host, however the hosts of some VHF viruses remain
unknown, including that of Ebola and Marburg viruses. Some VHF viruses
can be transmitted by the body fluids of infected people.
Symptoms: Reactions vary depending on the type of VHF, but symptoms
often include fever, fatigue, dizziness, muscle aches and exhaustion.
Severe cases cause bleeding under the skin and in internal organs. Some
types of VHF cause kidney failure.
Treatment: Generally there are no treatments other than supportive
therapy for VHFs.
Prevention: Vaccines are available for only two VHFs: yellow fever
and Argentine hemorrhagic fever.
Sulfur mustards are vesicants and alkylating agents, more commonly known
as blister agents. They are colorless when pure but are generally a yellow
to brown color and have a slight garlic or mustard odor. Sulfur mustard
in vapor and liquid forms can be absorbed through the eyes, skin and mucous
Health Effects: Sulfur mustards cause skin, eye and respiratory
tract injury. They may also cause bone marrow suppression and neurologic
and gastrointestinal toxicity. Although cellular changes occur within
minutes of contact, pain and other clinical effects are delayed for one
to 24 hours.
Antidote: There is no antidote for sulfur mustard toxicity. Decontamination
of all potentially exposed areas within minutes after exposure is the
only effective means of decreasing tissue damage.
VX is a highly toxic compound in both its liquid and vapor form that attacks
the central nervous system. It is considered at least 100 times more toxic
by entry through the skin than the nerve-agent sarin, and twice as toxic
by inhalation. VX can persist for long periods under average weather conditions
and for months in very cold conditions.
Health Effects: VX can cause death minutes after exposure. It can
enter the body by inhalation, ingestion, through the eyes and through
the skin. Symptoms can vary but commonly include runny nose, water eyes,
drooling, excessive sweating, difficulty in breathing, dimness of vision,
nausea and twitching. It kills by attacking the body's voluntary muscle
and gland "on switch," causing the muscles to tire so they can
no longer sustain breathing.
Antidote: Immediate treatment is decontamination by removing clothing
and flushing the eyes and skin with water. Hospitals in many communities
are stocking the antidotes.
Sarin is a highly toxic compound in both its liquid and vapor state that
attacks the central nervous system.
Health Effects: Sarin can cause death minutes after exposure. It
enters the body by inhalation, ingestion, through the eyes and the skin.
Symptoms vary but commonly include a runny nose, watery eyes, drooling
and excessive sweating, difficulty in breathing, dimness of vision, nausea,
vomiting, twitching and headache. It kills by attacking the body's voluntary
muscle and gland "on switch," causing the muscles to tire so
they can no longer sustain breathing.
Antidote: Immediate treatment is decontamination by removing clothing
and flushing eyes and skin with water. Hospitals in many communities are
stocking the antidotes.
Chlorine is a greenish-yellow gas with a pungent odor that is heavier
than air. It reacts violently with many organic compounds, creating a
fire and explosion hazard.
Health Effects: Chlorine is corrosive to the eyes and the skin
and can cause tearing, blurred vision and burns. Inhalation may cause
labored breathing and lung edema. The symptoms of lung edema often do
not manifest until a few hours after exposure. High exposure levels may
result in death.
Antidote: Fresh air in the case of inhalation and rinsing with
plenty of water in case of exposure to skin and eyes.
Hydrogen cyanide is an extremely flammable, colorless gas or liquid. It
gives off toxic fumes in a fire and is highly explosive.
Health Effects: Exposure irritates the eyes, the skin and the respiratory
tract. Symptoms are burning and redness for the skin and eyes. Inhalation
causes confusion, drowsiness and shortness of breath, leading to collapse.
The substance can affect the central nervous system, resulting in impaired
respiratory and circulatory functions. Exposure can be fatal.
Antidote:Fresh air in the case of inhalation and rinsing with plenty
of water in the case of skin or eye exposure.