CBR stands for Chemical, Biological and Radiological. I’m not medically or scientifically qualified (my Diploma in Astronomy is genuine but irrelevant) so this post is written by a lay person intending to be helpful to the general public. If you know more, or know differently, it would be really helpful if you would please add a comment, no matter when you come across this post.
As I say, CBR stands for Chemical, Biological and Radiological. Radiological means that radioactive material, is used, but there isn’t a nuclear explosion – conventional explosives are used instead. This means that we’re not talking about nuclear bombs being dropped, definitely not. In my research on CBR attacks, the two attacks that are constantly quoted are the 1995 chemical attack on the Tokyo underground system, using the nerve gas sarin, and the 2001 biological attacks in the USA using anthrax spores sent through the postal system.
What of radiological attacks? So far as we know, no terrorist group has yet used radiological weapons, so there’s nothing directly comparable, but there are radiological accidents, which give us the best indicators of what the results might be. I was shocked when I discoveed how many there have been – they aren’t nearly as well known to the general public as the two attacks mentioned above, probably because they’re not about terrorists, but they’ve affected many more people.
There have been no CBR attacks in the UK to date, though there are a few UK accidents included in that list.
The website of the CPNI, the UK Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure makes some really good points.
Firstly, the materials used are either very difficult to obtain (radioactive materials), or difficult to use effectlvely.
Secondly – just as with other terrorist attacks the UK has suffered, there may well not be any warning; the sinister thing is, however, that the nature of the attack may not even be obvious. “First indicators may be the sudden appearance of powders, liquids or strange smells within the building, with or without an immediate effect on people.” So, there may well not be an explosion to tell you something’s gone badly wrong.
Thirdly, when not fatal (the vast majority of cases per incident) the effects may not become apparent for some days – so if you think you may have been affected by a known incident, do your research on when, where and what, and go along to the nearest NHS facility that can help you. If there’s nothing specialist immediately available to you, go to the nearest A&E, immediately: your life and/or your health may be at risk.
If you’re caught up in an incident
The USNRC, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Committee, has some good, plain advice about what to do when you’re caught up in a dirty bomb, and it could be good advice in many types of incident. I’ve repeated the list in the next paragraph down and added to their points, in bold.
Firstly, this is their list:
- Move away from the immediate area – at least several blocks from the explosion – and go inside. This will reduce exposure to any radioactive airborne dust.
- Turn on local radio or TV channels for advisories from emergency response and health authorities.
- If facilities are available, remove clothes and place them in a sealed plastic bag. Saving contaminated clothing will allow testing for radiation exposure.
- Take a shower to wash off dust and dirt. This will reduce total radiation exposure, if the explosive device contained radioactive material.
- If radioactive material was released, local news broadcasts will advise people where to report for radiation monitoring and blood and other tests to determine whether they were exposed and what steps to take to protect their health.
And now the same list again, with the extras that I’ve gleaned in bold:
Move away from the immediate area – at least several blocks from the explosion – and go inside. This will reduce exposure to any radioactive airborne dust.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the people there, nearly everyone will be willing to help: remember the fantastic community response in NYC during 9/11. If you do have a nearby friendly face to go to, of course, all the better. And if you’re safe, but you can offer help to someone, then please do so.
That said, follow instructions at the scene: if you’re asked to stay elsewhere in an affected building, then do so – if you don’t you may be exposing other people to risk, and you may be depriving yourself of the chance of rapid and appropriate medical assistance.
Isolating airflow seems to be crucial – once you’re sheltering inside, wherever you are, shut down air conditioning, vents and fans, and shut doors and windows as tightly as possible.
Turn on local radio or TV channels for information and advice from emergency response and health authorities.
Having your own radio, with batteries or hand cranked, will be extremely valuable in this situation. Make a note of any phone numbers to contact, if you can get through eventually you may be able to get information tailored to your situation.
If facilities are available, remove clothes and place them in a sealed plastic bag. Saving contaminated clothing will allow testing for radiation exposure.
Borrowing, or even buying, clothes, and bagging the ones you’ve been wearing, could be hugely positive for your long term health.
Take a shower to wash off dust and dirt. This will reduce total radiation exposure, if the explosive device contained radioactive material.
Do this before you put on your new clothes, of course. But do it even if you don’t have any new clothes – and if that’s the case, it’s probably worth going into the shower with your clothes on, and taking them off piece by piece, to get rid of as much dust as possible. Wet clothes aren’t the worst thing that could happen to you.
Cleaning up also means rinsing your mouth and ears thoroughly, and blowing your nose repeatedly. And don’t forget the soles of your feet.
It might well be worth using a home made “peri bottle”. To make one, think of emptying out a squeezy bottle of washing up liquid, rinse, fill it with water and squeeze the jet of water into hard-to-reach corners – in or behind your ears, for instance, or on any small cuts you might have. Angle the jet so that the water is encouraged to flow off you, taking with it any toxins you may have gathered.
If radioactive material was released, local news broadcasts will advise people where to report for radiation monitoring and blood and other tests to determine whether they were exposed and what steps to take to protect their health.
Listen carefully to this information, and check it later on, to be sure you’ve understood; it’s a stressful situation, we can all mis-hear things in bad times.
Other action points to help you
If you are told to evacuate, do you know where to go? Especially if you’re away from home and/or in a foreign country, this may be very difficult. Having a skeleton plan beforehand, and adapting to the situation in which you find yourself, will be helpful.
If you’re with friends, always have an emergency rendezvous point if you get separated, and know the local emergency numbers and locations. Bear in mind that mobile phones may not work, either because the network is overloaded or has been purposely shut down.
What if you notice something’s wrong? I’ve called in potential emergencies a couple of times – once at Golders Green Coach Station (it turned out someone’s trolley luggage had broken and they’d abandoned it in a doorway, it wasn’t a bomb) and once on the tube (a big bag that looked like it just had takeaway rubbish in it – but it was really big, and there was a security alert on. Once you use the emergency phones, by the way, you’re on CCTV linked to the emergency centre, so be aware of that. The Police Anti-Terrorism Hotline is 0800 789 321. If you can’t remember it in the heat of the moment, call 999. MI5 have the freefone number 0800 111 4645 specifically for members of the public to use to tell them about a threat to national security – obviously, they request that no one uses it for anything else. Their contact page is here.
What if you think there’s a chance that something is a terrorist device, or that someone is a terrorist? Get away, of course. Obviously, you don’t run about screaming accusations – for one thing, like the false alarms I experienced, they probably aren’t, and a false accusation could see you charged for slander, if nothing else. And you might create a panic that would itself cost lives, people could be trampled. But you can safeguard yourself by distancing, and you can use appropriate channels to warn the emergency services of a potential danger that you’ve spotted.
If something happens and you’re not affected, don’t rubberneck – leave the area, leave it free for the emergency services. You will also avoid the chance that there are secondary devices set to kill or maim yet more people. Contact your loved ones to let them know you’re safe if you can, but don’t stay on too long, phone lines will be desperately important. Texts will get through more easily than calls.
Remember that in general, even today, the vast majority of the emergency services and the military are very highly trained, and they want to use that training to help you. Let them do their job, by giving them information, staying out of their way, and accepting their help.
If you’re sheltering in place during a terrorist attack of any sort at all, stay away from the windows: there may be more than one type of attack planned, and the terrorists may still be near the scene and spotting people hiding nearby.
If you need medical aid yourself, find the emergency services and tell them, but bear in mind they will almost certainly be inundated with injured people. You should have a whistle on your keyring, so that you can broadcast an SOS ( … – – – …) if you can’t move. Texting and phoning might still work, if the mobile towers are still functioning.
In everything that I’ve read, water is used as the primary means of decontamination – flowing water, obviously. So one thing that you can do for yourself is to carry a bit more water than you normally would, if there’s an alert, and you’re somewhere you feel at risk. Say, a litre instead of half a litre. Would it do any good, to pour that over yourself if something had happened? I don’t know. But it couldn’t harm to do it, and it might help. By how much? Again, I don’t know. But what if it helped lessen your exposure by 5%? That would be worth the effort carrying an extra container of water around, wouldn’t it?
Here’s an interesting one: write down what you saw and heard as soon as you can. It may help the authorities to understand what happened. Don’t delete your photos, videos or tweets.