Chemical threats and vulnerabilities

The smell of rotting fish is synonymous to something being wrong.  Everyday we are subjected to multifarious smells and odors, some pleasing, others noxious.  Then there are substances that are bad to touch. They may cause irritation, burns or rashes.  Others may sting your eyes.  We have a natural reflex that tells us that something is not right with this place based on our sensory inputs.

Technological advancements have brought us far from the days of simple classroom chemistry to complex reactions leading to exotic chemical compounds.  These could be in any physical state.  Some are beneficial as medicines, some excellent engineering material while others may result in new revolutionary technologies.  While there may be countless benefits of modern chemistry, there are grave pitfalls too.

Chemical Accidents. The mention of chemical accidents brings to mind the gory images Chemical plants pollution of Bhopal gas victims of 1984. Similar accidents are happening all over the world. There are chemical plants which use tons of toxic chemicals to produce very useful and beneficial products.  Tons of waste chemicals and unwanted by-products lie begging for disposal.  Cost cutting and unregulated industrial boom compounded by rampant corruption has led to chemical units mushrooming at lesser known locations.  Such units, more often than not, function with total disregard of safety norms and security of material.  Pilferages and “loss in transit” cases are many. Lack of oversight leads to process shortcuts and accidents.  Loss of life is the least of the concerns.
Transportation and logistics of storage, handling and distribution of toxic substances has its perils too.  Gross disregard to best practices and regulations as well as lack of education and awareness has led to many accidents and incidents with toxic chemicals. Chemical train accidents, container disruptions, pipeline bursts and scores of such incidents put us at risk on a daily basis.

The Spectre of Terrorism.  A lot of us may remember our first chemical lab kit we got as children.  The basics of chemistry were learnt then.  Imagine a trained scientist with misguided leanings having rudimentary, yet functional laboratory facilities set up in a kitchen or pantry.  Most toxic compounds can be created here.  If the required dispersal means can be put together and the desired motivation exists, imagine what scary scenarios could be played up.  Forget about exotic chemical warfare agents, simple industrial chemicals like Ammonia or Chlorine could be used to devastating effects.  Such incidents are common place in Syria and Iraq.

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Today’s terrorists have trained scientists and technologists within their ranks who are
working to device such dangerous means to cause harm.  Any of the recent attacks (Brussels, Paris, Nice, Kabul, Baghdad, Mali) could have had a toxic component included.  The casualties would have multiplied manifold. Presence of a toxic chemical would have only been discovered on symptoms emerging in the victims.  Swiftly changing weather conditions would have complicated mapping and response.


Vulnerabilities.
  From human error to gross complacency, there are many issues that compound the threat.  Salient among these, which are common (in varying degree) across the globe, are :

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  • Population Density. More population means more chances of casualties. Especially in market places, major events, sporting extravaganzas, religious festivals and rallies.
  • Lack of Awareness. Government agencies, law enforcement and first responders too are not aware of the threats that may emerge.  At community level, there is near total lack of awareness of such threats.
  • Complacency by officials stating “it cannot happen here” or “we will see when it happens” to “too far-fetched an idea” are major contributors. Mock drills are merely done to fill record columns in books. Perfunctory checks of vehicles and baggage without full knowledge of what they should be looking for smacks of gross lack of training.
  • Rampant Corruption. This leads to breaking of laws and circumventing rules and procedures.  Use of substandard materials and spurious ingredients, pilferages and disregard to unlawful activities are facilitated by corrupt officials.
  • Inadequate Response and Medical Facilities. Such incidents may result in thousands of casualties.  Medical services are not yet prepared for such surge casualties.
  • Porous Borders. This is leading to free movement of toxic material and perpetrators.
  • Legislative Shortcomings. Ineffective implementation of legislations and regulation
    leads to neglect and complacency.
  • Waste Management. This is one of the biggest area of vulnerability.  Huge dumps of toxic wastes surround the open spaces around factories.  Large landfills with hazardous material lead to crop, vegetation and ground water contamination.

Final_Hanford_Offsite_Waste_Shipment_Leaves_Idaho_Treatment_Facility_(7597554964)Chemical threats are all around us.  It needs no rocket science to make these happen.  Strict control, effective use and optimal vigilance will help prevent these from materialising. Awareness generation and building requisite capacity and capability is the key to securing ourselves against toxic chemical threats.  It is high time that we understand the gravity of this threat and prepare ourselves adequately.