CBRN decon: clean up your act


An attack or release suspected to involve CBRN materials or as a result of a hazmat (hazardous materials) incident or accident would in many cases require the rapid decontamination of members of the public and the contaminated environment. Specialist first-responder units are trained to apply the procedure and would have to deal with situations where panic and multiple devices could present. Unlike a ‘normal’ explosion, usually of an IED (improvised explosive device), any level of CBRN emission from an attack will require specific kinds of clean-up.

Kuala Lumpur: VX nerve agent

On  February, the half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong Nam, was killed by VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport when two assailants coming from behind him smeared his face with a cloth.

Only on 25 February – a whole week after the assassination – parts of the airport departure hall were cordoned off and Police CBRN teams and a fire department Hazmat unit were called in. In the interim, passengers had passed through the area where the victim had been assaulted. The Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board received a police request for technical assistance but VX does not come under his jurisdiction as it is not a radioisotope.

A hazmat crew scans the decontamination zone at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 in Sepang, Malaysia on 26 February 2017.

VX can take six to eight days to dissipate. The agents are washed and rinsed away, dried up, sucked up by absorbent substances, or removed by heat treatment. Water and detergents, soda, soap, organic solvents – fuel, paraffin and carburettor spirit are used.

This illustrated a poor readiness for dealing with the aftermath of a CBRN attack, albeit contained and limited. As CBRN is classed as low probability, many countries do not think it warrants the complex levels and types of preparedness needed, included for decon.

A week following the killing of Kim Jong Nam on 13 February, a hazmat crew was sent in. Here the check-in kiosk machines are being scanned.


Birling Gap: chemical haze

birling gap major incident – 50 casulaties with gas cloud – eastbounre hospital triage

On 27 August an area of the English south coast near Birling Gap and Eastbourne was evacuated by emergency services after an ‘unknown haze’ caused up to 150 visitors to be hospitalized with breathing difficulties, vomiting, and burning eyes and throats. East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust said: “The patients we are caring for are being decontaminated on site by our trained hospital staff.” Some decontamination of people affected – most likely a basic wash down – took place once the patients were hospitalised. The cause and identity of the chemical cloud is still unconfirmed, but the response would have served as a ‘dry run’ for response to a low-level terrorist chemical attack.







London City: chemical scare

In October 2016 a full-scale emergency response followed reports of a chemical release at London City Airport. Three fire engines and specialist Detection, Identification and Monitoring (DIM) vehicles were called after what Met police described was a dispersion of CS gas, which could have been “discarded by a passenger prior to check-in”.

Around 500 members of the public and staff were evacuated and London Ambulance Service crews treated 26 patients at the scene for respiratory distress; two were taken to hospital. Decon was not required in this case but resources deployed to the scene included two single responders in cars, four ambulance crews, an incident response officer and a Hazardous Area Response Team – specially kitted out vehicles and specifically trained medics for hazardous response.

The DIM vehicles provide a capability to a major national incident, involving actual or potential CBRN or hazardous materials (Hazmat). Each DIM team consists of around 12 Hazmat officers, trained to use the full suite of equipment. As well as a suite of detection, identification and monitoring equipment, the vehicles have an equipment stowage area for gas-tight NBC suits, breathing apparatus, decontamination equipment and scene lighting.

A modified firefighter decontamination structure (MD4) is slightly smaller in size and weight than the structure used on Incident Response Units (IRUs). It is capable of supporting the safe decontamination process for the operators, consistent with national procedures and protocols.

London: polonium-210

Following the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko by polonium-210 in November 2006 in London – the capital’s first radiological dispersal event (RDE) – the Government Decontamination Service (GDS) hired subcontractors to clean up nine contaminated locations. Low-level contamination was left in situ where no risk was posed. As well as a heavy domestic clean for many sites, solid, non-porous surfaces like varnished wooden furniture and painted walls required a strong detergent, such as Decon-90 containing 3% potassium hydroxide. The main crime scene, the Millennium Hotel, was the most contaminated and took 19 days to clean up.

Surfaces where penetration was weak were sealed with layers of paint or varnish. A large volume of waste, including furniture and textiles, was bagged and stored for disposal. Bathtub enamel was smashed off with hammers. After evidence was taken they had to be treated as nuclear waste sites. Despite the tiny amount and short half-life (138 days) of polonium-210, the clean-up operation demonstrated how easily and how insidiously contamination can spread.



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Andy Oppenheimer AIExpE MIABTI is Editor-in-Chief of CBNW (Chemical, Biological & Nuclear Warfare) and CBNW Xplosive journals, a consultant in CBRNE and counter-terrorism, and author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets (Irish Academic Press, 2008).