Let me out! I’m choking!

Densely populated market place in Dhaka https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/03/these-are-the-world-s-most-densely-populated-places/ – Image: REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

The CBRN Threat

World population is on the rise and cities and towns are getting overcrowded.  Tiny apartment blocks and slums are mushrooming on a daily basis.  Market places are chock-a-block and there is hardly any room for accommodating more people.  To save on space, market places are converting to malls where everything from shoes to food is concentrated in one building.  These malls more often than not also boast multiplexes which are bustling with activity especially on weekends.  Terrorist incidents and urban catastrophes have seen massive casualties in recent years.  Such dense populated areas present lucrative targets for terrorist acts.

Large public events like sports extravaganzas, political rallies and religious events, being high population density venues with significant politico-social importance, are highly vulnerable to CBRN terrorism. A terrorist attack involving the use of CBRN materials, could inflict large numbers of casualties and would represent a major incident for the emergency services. Administration and response forces could get overwhelmed unless proper planning and preparations are made.

Huge crowd of fans at FIFA World Cup matches in 2010 https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/listening_to_the_world_cup-draft/ Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bigblackbox/4760632538/in/photostream/

CBRN emergencies occur as a result of occupational exposure, fire, explosion, release of toxicants, and warfare, and are caused either by ignorance, negligence, incompetence, accident, or malicious intention. The emergence of state-sponsored terrorism, proliferation of chemical/biological weapons, availability of materials and scientific weapons expertise, and recent increases in less discriminate attacks, all point toward a growing probability of occurrence of mass casualty incident.

The recent nerve agent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK and the public poisoning of Kim Jong Nam at a crowded Kuala Lumpur airport terminal raises fears of similar large scale threats to general unassuming public.  The paranoia created/generated shall have many repercussions.  For example, post the Salisbury poisoning, the UK has upped its preparedness for Anthrax threats by issuing Anthrax vaccines to all its troops, especially those deployed abroad.  A report by the European Commission has warned that chemical and biological stockpiles in Syria, which have also been used by the Islamic State over the past five years, could make their way over to Europe.

Peculiarities and Perils of Densely Populated Areas

The CBRN incidents leave a long trail of profound sufferings beyond the range of normal human experience. The common peculiarity among CBRN incidences is ‘contamination’ and ‘lethality’ that needs specialized preparedness in terms of heightened awareness, use of specialized equipment including personal protective equipment, detectors, decontamination aid, and specialized medical support measures. Such incidents would result in a larger population in a state of panic and fear, affecting their morale. Chaos at the incident site is inevitable and cannot be prevented. The impact is multipronged – physical, psychological, economical, and social. Imagine a chemical attack in a bustling market during the week preceding Christmas or Diwali.

Crowded market in Mumbai http://premkumardhage.blogspot.co.ke/2017/09/blog-post.html – Image Premkumar Dhage

A CBRN incident in a densely populated area has some peculiarities that responders and incident managers need to keep in mind.  The target area would be vague.  Congested urban concrete jungles, large slums, malls, open market places or religious venues all pose problems in identifying and demarcating the exact area of contamination.  In addition fleeing persons and vehicles would compound the spread of contamination. Police and emergency responders need to plan additional safe zones while cordoning off the sites.  Crowd management itself shall be a nightmare.  Multitude of casualties and partially affected public shall overwhelm the responders in minutes.

Access to the site by ambulances and response equipment may also pose a problem.  It is seen that in large buildings and malls most emergency exits, though marked, are kept locked and rarely opened or tested.  This poses restricted operational space.  Further, the surge of exiting people would overwhelm efforts to streamline exits and evacuation. There have been instances of people jumping out of windows in an attempt to save their lives. Regular inspections and creation of adequate exits and access means to congested areas should be instituted.

Smoke rising from the massive Chemical explosion at a warehouse in Tianjin port, China Sep 2016 http://www.mysinchew.com/node/115458 – Photo courtesy: AFP

Invalids, old, infirm and children pose additional problems. Imagine evacuating a hospital where patients are sedated, in process of being operated upon, post-operative care and in various other compromised situations.  Responders and hospital staff should be trained to effect evacuation of such patients in the shortest and best possible manner.

Awareness to CBRN threats is woefully low in general public. The Administration needs to institute effective awareness drives without raising public paranoia.  Media has a great role to play.  Positive and educative media programs shall have good effects.

A CBRN incident in a densely populated area will be catastrophic.  It is therefore advisable to strengthen the preventive aspects of CBRN risk mitigation. Strict control on CBRN material and its movement and sound intelligence and networking should be implemented to effectively locate, interdict, disable and prevent a CBRN incident from happening.

The featured image is of Slums in Africa where polluted material is everyday life and courtesy of http://wakonyu.org/where-we-work/

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Dr. Ram Athavale has been a key advisor to the Government of India on CBRN Security and Incident Management, and is now deployed as a key CBRN Expert for On-Site Technical Assistance to the EU CBRN Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence Regional Secretariat in Nairobi Kenya.