BIOLOGICAL THREATS: Chemical/Biological Threats, Part 2

An early example of biological warfare occurred in 1346, at Kaffa (now Feodosiya, Ukraine), when the bodies of soldiers who died from the plague were launched by catapult over the walls of the besieged city. In more recent history (1989,) Iraq stockpiled botulinum, anthrax, clostridium perfingens and aflatoxin. There are also grave concerns about the security of the enormous stockpiles of deadly biological agents, accumulated by the Soviet Union before its collapse.

In recent years, there has been increased concern about the potential use of biological weapons in the United States. While a school or school event could be the release site of a biological attack, other targets might more likely be selected. Obviously, the goals, motivations and capabilities of an individual or group bent on an attack, the ease of striking various targets and many other factors play into target selection. An otherwise less desirable target might be chosen because a seemingly ideal target is too well secured.

A number of options are available for those wishing to carry out a biological attack. A no-notice attack could involve the covert release of dried or liquid biological agent, such as a viral, toxin, bacterial or rickettsial agent against humans, animals or food products and agricultural goods. This type of release could generate symptoms in humans days, if not weeks, after the initial release, depending on a series of agent conditions including; amount and type of agent, method of dispersion and delivery, existing environmental conditions and the nature of the selected target. While schools in any community impacted by a biological attack could be affected, an area of particular concern would be a common food source attack. Substances such as botulinin toxin could be used to contaminate food or beverage supplies from a vendor serving numerous schools with deadly and more rapid affect. Prompt detection, identification of the agent and notification of all schools using the contamination product to prevent further contamination would be critical in minimizing casualties. Unfortunately, the (sometimes ridiculous) school emergency operations plans developed by some consultants do not address this concern at all. Fortunately, many of these types of attacks are difficult to carry out successfully. Unfortunately, like chemical attacks, biological attacks are difficult to prevent in a free society.

Counterterrorism efforts, including intelligence, target hardening, protection of food sources, ventilation systems and other measures are combined with efforts to mitigate against the negative effects of a biological attack. Mitigation efforts include enhanced public health surveillance systems designed to help spot abnormal patterns of illnesses that could be the result of a biological attack, and the deployment of the Strategic National Stockpile (which includes emergency medicines) to the affected site. The key to success in addressing a biological attack is early detection and prompt assessment of the situation.

Unlike a chemical attack, the use of a biological weapon may not be immediately apparent. The response in these instances will not be the lights-and-siren-type of affair that would be expected in a chemical attack. In many scenarios, the shelter-in-place instructions, listed in many school biological incident plans, would serve no purpose and could, in fact, help increase the effectiveness of an attack. Coordinated response, effective crisis communications and advance training of crisis team members would likely be more critical issues. The public health and medical community, along with key government officials and communications with the public, would be the more effective response.

As with chemical attacks, government officials and agencies are working steadfastly to enhance our capabilities to prevent and respond effectively to biological attacks. A side benefit of these efforts is greater protection against natural outbreaks of disease Just as the enormous effort to better equip and train hazardous materials teams to respond to chemical attacks will pay enormous dividends when accidents involving toxic chemicals occur, efforts to protect our populace from biological attack lower risks posed by epidemics and pandemics.

Qualified consulting firms and a variety of government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, provide information and assistance in bolstering prevention and emergency preparedness measures for commercial bus operations. Risk and vulnerability assessment should be relied upon to help determine how individual organizations address concerns of biological terrorism. Using public and private sector expertise, you can help your organization be better informed and prepared to face the challenges of biological terrorism.

Note: This column was developed with extensive reliance on Jane’s Chemical – Biological Defense Guidebook published by Jane’s Information Group with permission from the publisher.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at