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Worst Case Scenarios: Terrorism & industrial chemicals.

ATSDR Report on Chemical Terrorism

<-- Terrorism and Industrial Chemicals



View of highly industrialized area



     Terrorists, warring factions, and saboteurs use chemicals commonly found in communities in industrialized nations to create improvised explosives, incendiaries, and chemical agents.  Common chemicals may be used because standard military chemical agents may be difficult or dangerous to manufacture, access, or disperse.
     The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) developed a 10-step procedure to analyze, mitigate, and prevent public health hazards resulting from terrorism involving industrial chemicals. The procedure includes identifying key information such as potential threats, local sources of chemicals of potential use to terrorists, exposure pathways, impacts on human health and infrastructure, health risk communication needs, and mitigation and prevention methods. The information identified during these steps is then incorporated into emergency response plans and training exercises.  Results of applying the 10-step procedure to two communities are discussed.


     Terrorists sponsored by states, and those with substantial financial resources and technical expertise, may purchase or develop explosives, incendiaries and chemical agents similar to those used by military services. However, several factors limit the use of these weapons by many terrorists, including controlled access to precursor chemicals, difficulty and danger in producing the agents, problems with dispersion of liquid droplets without military munitions, security surrounding government chemical agent stockpiles, and binary chemical agent storage.       Industrial chemicals have been used by terrorists as improvised explosives, incendiaries and poisons in several recent incidents2,3,4. While the improvised chemical agents may be less toxic than military agents, many are perceived by the public to be highly dangerous; they have rapid, highly visible impacts on health; they are accessible; and they can be dispersed by smoke, gas clouds, or food and medicine distribution networks.
     In response to increasing concerns about chemical terrorism in the United States, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry developed a 10-step procedure to assist local public health and safety officials in analyzing, mitigating and preventing such hazards5,6.  Although the procedure was used to address terrorism in the United States, it may be adapted to conflict zones where industries become targets. 
     The purposes of this paper are to briefly describe the procedure, and to describe some of the major findings when it was applied to two communities in the United States: a large city in a desert with chemical and entertainment industries, and a county containing several major chemical manufacturing facilities located along a river valley.

Ten-Step Procedure

The procedures consists of the following steps:
    1.   Identify, assess and prioritize threats
    2.   Identify local sources of chemicals that may be used in improvised weapons
    3.   Evaluate potential exposure pathways
    4.   Identify potential acute and chronic health impacts
    5.   Estimate potential impacts on infrastructure and the environment
    6.   Identify health risk communication needs
    7.   Identify methods to mitigate potential hazards
    8.   Identify specific steps to prevent the use of industrial chemicals as improvised weapons
    9.   Incorporate the threat assessment, mitigation, and prevention information into emergency
          response plans
  10.   Conduct training exercises to prepare to prevent and mitigate the health threats.

Step 1: Identify, Assess and Prioritize Threats

     As a starting point for the first step, national statistics on domestic terrorism were reviewed to identify trends that may have some relevance at the State and local levels7.  Those statistics indicated that:
   93% of the incidents involved the use of explosives or incendiaries
   75% of the incidents occurred in two regions of the country
   86% of the groups focused on narrowly defined political issues with potential targets
       that could be identified in advance of an incident, and
   43% of the targets were businesses or industries, and another 50% involved government
    staff or property.

     The information on national trends dispelled misconceptions about the nature of the threat, and provided strong guidance for identifying and prioritizing threats at the local level. After reviewing the statistics, potential threat groups were assessed based on several characteristics, including potential targets and potential use of industrial chemicals as improvised weapons.  In both communities, terrorist groups in the immediate State or region were identified as posing the greatest threats. These groups primarily targeted Federal government infrastructure. However, some of the same groups also espoused a conservative religious agenda, and might
target abortion clinics, gambling casinos, and nightclubs that they find offensive. One of the multi-national corporations located in the river valley community had experienced a chemical disaster at a plant in a foreign nation, resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries. Potential retribution attacks by foreign terrorist groups were considered a significant threat for that industrial facility and the surrounding community.

Step 2: Identify Local Sources of Chemicals Used in Improvised Weapons

"Soft target" sources of chemicals in the two communities mentioned above included: 
Figure 1:  Freight car carrying sulphuric acid   chemical manufacturing plants (chlorine, peroxides, other industrial gases, plastics, and pesticides)
   food processing and storage facilities with large ammonia tanks
   chemical transportation assets (rail tank cars, tank trucks, pipelines, and river barges)
   gasoline and jet fuel storage tanks at distribution centers, airports, and barge terminals
  compressed gases in tanks, pipelines, and pumping stations
   gold mines where cyanide and mercury compounds are used
   pesticide manufacturing and supply distributors, and
   educational, medical and research laboratories.

Some of the more common types of chemicals that could be used in improvised weapons in the communities included:
   eye, skin and respiratory irritants (acids, ammonia, acrylates, aldehydes, and isocyanates)
   choking agents (chlorine, hydrogen sulfide, and phosgene)
   flammable chemical industry gases (acetone, alkenes, alkyl halides, amines)
   aromatic hydrocarbons that could be used as water supply contaminants (benzene, etc.)
   oxidizers for improvised explosives (oxygen, butadiene, and peroxides)
   aniline, nitrile, and cyanide compounds that could be used as chemical asphyxiants
   compressed hydrocarbon fuel gases that could be used as incendiaries or simple
       asphyxiants (liquified natural gas, propane, isobutane)
   liquid hydrocarbon fuels that could be used as incendiaries or water supply contaminants
       (gasoline, jet fuel)
   industrial compounds that could be used as blister agents (dimethyl sulfate), and
  organophosphate pesticides that could be used as low-grade nerve agents.

Step 3: Evaluate Exposure Pathways

Five components were evaluated for each potential exposure pathway:
   the source of the chemical (type, duration and magnitude of release)
   delivery methods (transportation routes; fate and transport in air and water; food and
       drug distribution networks)
   potential targets (businesses and industries, government buildings, animal research
       laboratories, abortion clinics, etc.) and adjacent affected areas
   exposure routes (ingestion, inhalation, dermal, and ocular), and
   receptor populations, including sensitive sub-populations such as children, patients in
       health care facilities, etc.

Figure 2:  River barge near homes

     Communities with completed exposure pathways (i.e., all five components were potentially present) were identified as high priorities for mitigation and prevention efforts.  Three important points were revealed during the pathways analyses. First, unlike military chemical warfare, ingestion is a major exposure route in chemical terrorism, particularly with cyanides, heavy metals, and liquid aromatic hydrocarbons. Second, in both communities, chemical transportation assets posed greater hazards than fixed facilities because substantial quantities of chemicals could be moved closer to potential targets. Finally, it is critically important to identify sensitive
sub-populations within each potential receptor population, if possible. For example, in the river valley community, several schools were located adjacent to a facility containing acrylonitrile.  Concentrations of acrylonitrile in air that are irritating to adults can be lethal to children.

Step 4: Identify Potential Acute and Chronic Health Hazards

     Acute hazards are listed explicitly or can be inferred from the information presented in Step 2.  Detailed information can be obtained from a number of government, academic, and commercial sources. References used during the evaluations of the two communities in this paper included :
   the North American Emergency Response Guide Book 
   toxicological profiles, chemical fact sheets, Case Studies in Environmental Medicine, and
      Medical Management Guidelines published by ATSDR (1-888-422-8737,
   fact sheets from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (
   material safety data sheets from academia
   commercial hazardous substances databases such as TOMES by Micromedix.

Figure 3:  Chlorine gas storage     

Potential chronic health effects from weapons that could be improvised from sources in the two communities include:
   infections of skin and lung burns, mental depression, and disabilities from incendiaries 
       and explosives
   chronic conjunctivitis and permanent corneal damage from eye irritants
   respiratory diseases (bronchitis, pneumonitis, chronic reduced airway flow) from choking
   permanent nerve damage, visual problems, muscle necrosis, psychiatric problems, and
       memory loss from exposure to organophosphates
   heart, kidney and liver damage from heavy metals, and
   increased risks of birth defects from exposure to nitriles.

     Cancer incidence would not be expected to increase in either of the two communities evaluated in response to an acute exposure, although communities are frequently concerned about relationships between chemical exposures and cancers.  Long-term medical monitoring would be needed for several of the adverse health effects mentioned above in both communities.

Step 5: Identify Potential Infrastructure and Environmental Impacts

Potential infrastructure impacts identified for the two communities included:
   the need for police, fire and ambulance crews to operate in contaminated environments
   contamination of hospital emergency rooms and staff
   traffic jams and damage to transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.)
   increased risks of infectious diseases from lack of clean water, disruption of solid waste
       disposal services, and contact with sewage from broken pipes
   damage to or contamination of government emergency operations centers
   potential need to divert law enforcement personnel to evacuate jail and prison inmates
   disruption of electrical power, telephone, and computer services, and
   destruction, damage, or contamination of houses, schools, and offices.

Step 6: Identify Health Risk Communication Needs

     During a major incident, elected officials, the news media, and the public will demand credible information on health risks from exposure to chemical agents, as well as information about casualties, traffic, school children, etc. Health risk communication needs include fact sheets for high-priority chemicals, a formal communications plan, risk communication training, and coordination with law enforcement officials to protect sensitive information.

Step 7: Identify Methods to Mitigate Hazards

     Specific steps to mitigate potential hazards and impacts identified during the evaluations of the two communities in this paper included stocking antidotes for cyanide, nitrile, aniline, and organophosphate compounds; specifying alternate emergency operations centers, transportation routes, and medical treatment facilities; preparing paper copies of critical documents in case computer systems fail; and interagency coordination and training exercises.  In the river community, emergency response agencies had already distributed "shelter-in-place" instructions to each household in the event of an accidental release.  Large electronic billboards in the entertainment section of the desert city could be used for the same purpose.  Hazardous materials control infrastructure currently in place at the major chemical plants in the river valley included trained and equipped hazardous materials response crews, a state-of-the-art geographic information system containing detailed industrial chemical information, redundant automated control systems, vapor cloud suppression equipment, expanded highways along evacuation routes in neighborhoods adjacent to the plants, and earth barriers around chemical storage tanks. This infrastructure would be effective in mitigating intentional as well as accidental chemical releases.

Figure 4:  Rail cars filled with hazardous substances near residences

Step 8: Identify Specific Steps to Prevent the Use of Industrial Chemicals as Weapons

     Standard industrial security measures were reviewed with security staff from facilities and potential targets in the river community. These included routine searches for suspect devices, anti-blast curtains or film over windows, high-quality locks and alarms, bomb blankets to cover suspect devices, video surveillance, metal detectors, separate entrance and exit points, bag check-in and searches, security fencing, prohibiting unattended package deliveries, employee identification badges, and decals for vehicles.  Although routine security measures at government buildings and abortion clinics were excellent, security at chemical plants ranged from fair to very poor. Most security gaps were the result of complacency and lack of awareness of the threat (i.e., that almost half of the targets were businesses and industries). Chemical plant security managers were very pessimistic about their ability to deter sabotage by employees, yet none of them had implemented simple background checks for key employees such as chemical process operators. None of the corporate security staff had been trained to identify combinations of common chemicals at their facilities that could be used as improvised explosives and incendiaries, although most were aware of individual chemicals that posed significant fire, explosion or poison hazards.  Security around chemical transportation assets ranged from poor to non-existent.  Chemical barge terminals were located along the banks of the chemical plants, and were freely accessible along the river side of the facility. Rail and truck assets had no security beyond staging areas. Rail cars containing cyanide compounds, flammable liquid pesticides, liquified petroleum gases, chlorine, acids and butadiene were parked alongside residential areas.

Step 9: Incorporate Threat, Mitigation, and Prevention Information into Response Plans

     In the United States, chemical emergency response plans are required by Federal law at the Federal, State and local government levels. Most of the State and local plans currently do not address chemical terrorism, and many of those that do focus on terrorist use of military nerve and blister agents, rather than on the more accessible industrial chemicals. Information obtained during the threat, mitigation, and prevention evaluations is being incorporated into emergency response plans in the two communities.

Step 10: Train to Mitigate and Prevent Hazards

     The final step is to train to respond to high-priority, realistic threats. Training should include chemical protective equipment for industrial as well as military chemical agents, victim decontamination and transportation, hospital emergency room operations in a chemical environment, medical management of chemical casualties from admission to discharge, victim registration procedures, industrial security measures related to chemical terrorism, and hazardous materials spill assessment and cleanup procedures in areas that are crime scenes and require preservation of evidence. People generally respond to emergencies in the manner in which they are trained. Failing to train to address the specific aspects of industrial terrorism increases the vulnerabilities of industries and adjacent communities.


     Industrial chemicals provide terrorists with effective and readily accessible materials to develop improvised explosives, incendiaries, and poisons. Many public and corporate emergency responders are unaware of the magnitude of the threat of terrorism to businesses and industries.  The procedure described in this paper is one way to begin to address that threat. It is also adaptable to industries that may become targets in conflict zones. Vigorous efforts are needed by government personnel and corporate security experts to insure that these threats are identified, and that attacks are mitigated, or better yet, prevented from occurring.


CDR Joseph L. Hughart
Mark M. Bashor
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Public Health Service


1) U.S. Department of Defense, Proliferation, Threat and Response, April, 1996.

2) Hughart, Joseph L., Common Toxics and Terrorism, Proceedings of the 1996 Southwest Counter-Terrorism Training Symposium, Nevada Department of Public Safety, 1996.

3) Hughart, Joseph L., Terrorist Use of Expedient Chemical Agents, XVth World Chemical Conference and NBC Symposium, U.S. Army Chemical Corps, FT McClellan, AL, 1997.

4) U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1995,

5) Hughart, Joseph L., Health Risk Assessment and Las Vegas Case Study, Proceedings of the 1997 Annual Conference of the Nevada Public Health Association, Las Vegas, NV

6) Hughart, Joseph L., Chemicals and Terrorism: Human Health Threat Analysis, Mitigation and Prevention Information for Kanawha County and Nitro, West Virginia, ATSDR, Atlanta, GA, 1998.

7) Federal Bureau of Investigation, Domestic Terrorism in the United States, 1995, Washington, DC.

8) Stuempfle, A.K., et. al., Final Report of Task Force 25: Hazard from Industrial Chemicals, U.S. Department of Defense, 18 March 1996.

9) Burke, Robert, Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders, Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL, 1997.

10) Sheridan, Rob, Brief Review of Smoke Inhalation Injury, Shriner Burns Institute, Boston, MA, 1998.

11) ATSDR, Recent Evidence of Illnesses Linked to Exposure to Hazardous Substances, ATSDR, Atlanta, GA, 1996.

12) Williams, Phillip L., and James Burson, Industrial Toxicology, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, NY, 1985.


Dana Abouelnasr [email protected]
last updated 4/6/1999

<-- Terrorism and Industrial Chemicals

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