Chemical Warfare Agents in Terrorist Attacks: An Interregional Comparison, Tactical Response Implications, and the Emergence of Counterterrorism Medicine


21(3). 51 - 54 (Journal Article)

Background: Terrorist attacks are growing in frequency, increasing concerns about chemical warfare agents (CWAs). Asphyxiants (e.g., cyanide), opioids (e.g., carfentanyl), and nerve agents (e.g., ricin) represent some of the most lethal CWAs. Our aim was to define the epidemiology of CWA use in terrorism and detail specific agents used to allow for the development of training programs for responders. Methods: The open-source Global Terrorism Database (GTD) was searched for all chemical attacks from January 1, 1970, to December 31, 2018. Attacks were included when they fulfilled the terrorism-related criteria as set forth in the internal Codebook of the GTD. Events meeting only partial criteria were excluded. Results: A total of 347 terrorism-related chemical events occurred, with 921 fatalities and 13,361 nonfatal injuries (NFIs) recorded during the study period. South Asia accounted for nearly 30% (101 of 347) of CWA attacks, with 73 of 101 occurring in Afghanistan. The Taliban was implicated in 40 of 101 events utilizing a mixture of agents, including unknown chemical gases (likely representing trials of a number of different chemicals), contamination of water sources with pesticides, and the use of corrosive acid. The largest death toll from a single event (200 fatalities) was attributed to a cult-related mass murder in the Kasese District of Uganda in March 2000. East Asia sustained the highest NFI toll of 7,007 as a result of chemical attacks; 5,500 were attributed to the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack of 1995 by Aum Shinrikyo. Conclusion: The use of CWAs remains a concern given the rising rate of terrorist events. First responders and healthcare workers should be aware of potential chemical hazards that have been used regionally and globally and should train and prepare to respond appropriately.

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