4 Crucial Steps to Take to Survive a Nerve Agent Attack
Nerve agents are among the deadliest forms of chemical warfare agents (CWA) known to man. They were first discovered during World War II by German scientists seeking stronger pesticides for agricultural use. As these scientists soon realized, nerve agents were just as deadly to humans as they were to rats or bugs.
The initial discovery of nerve agents ignited a global arms race. Who could create the deadliest nerve agent possible? Who could stockpile the most of it? Who would use them first?
At the time, many governments viewed nerve agents as the ultimate practical weapon of mass destruction.
Unlike nuclear weapons, they wouldn’t eradicate an enemy’s infrastructure or leave any lasting damage. Instead, widely dispersed nerve agents could reliably annihilate an army (or a population) without requiring a great deal of effort or investment or risk of destroying structures.
In an era of intense nuclear brinksmanship, nerve agents were that last line of defense—one final step a world power could take before unleashing armageddon. Thus, governments across the globe began stockpiling them by the ton.
Most nations across the world have already signed the Chemical Weapons Convention barring the use of deadly nerve agents. But a handful of states remain in defiance (including Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan) and Russia obviously remains willing and ready to use their extensive arsenal.
Moreover, the threat of another terrorist attack remains ever-present—especially in larger cities across the world.
Fortunately, there are a number of different things you can keep in mind that will boost your odds of survival.
For a general overview of some of the world’s most dangerous chemical weapons, check out our guide here.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Stay Vigilant and Informed
Limit Your Exposure to Nerve Agents
Escape the Danger Zone
Decontaminate and Hunker Down
You Can Survive a Nerve Agent Attack
Stay Vigilant and informed
One of the most important things you can do to survive a nerve agent release is to ensure that you are not caught off guard. Just as avoiding dangerous parts of town can keep you from being mugged in the first place, so can monitoring for nerve agents keep you from being anywhere near a release site.
Here are a few tips that can help you to put that into practice.
Pay close attention to likely threats of an attack—especially from the “usual suspects”
The first and most important thing you can do to protect yourself against a nerve agent attack is to avoid the situation entirely.
The best defense is to put as much distance between yourself and the attack as possible. Because of this, you should take any public threats very seriously.
That’s doubly true if you live in a part of the world where chemical weapons have been used in the past. Maybe you live in a nation that is currently at a high risk of war against a hostile nation that possesses chemical weaponry (e.g., Russia), or maybe even in an area terrorists would describe as “target rich.”
Consider the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. That year, the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, unleashed a deadly sarin gas attack on a subway station that left 27 dead and a staggering 6,000 injured from the noxious fumes. More recently, in 2020, a customized Russian nerve agent called a “novichok” was used to poison dissenter Alexei Navalny in a Siberian airport.
In any of these cases, you will need to take any potential threats seriously.
Iraqi Scud B missiles capable of delivering nerve agents hundreds of miles.
During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s, Saddam Hussein’s forces deployed multiple nerve agents including Sarin and Tabun against Iranian forces in combat. Iraq later went on to use the same compounds to eradicate whole Kuridsh towns, including the 1988 attack on Halabja that killed 3,000.
So if and when you encounter a credible threat of nerve agent attacks, take it very seriously.
Sign up for an early alert warning system
Apps, such as Everbridge, are available for download that will send you push notifications on emergencies in your area.
These are useful for receiving real-time alerts from government officials on the presence of riots in your area, floods and fires. Even in the event of a terrorist attack, these apps will alert you.
This can be a lifesaver if you’re sitting in the warehouse at work without radio or internet access. In the event of an attack, your phone would notify you, and then you could take appropriate action in a timely manner.
Remember, it’s all about putting as much distance as possible between yourself and the attack. So an early alert is one of the best defenses that you have, as it will (hopefully) give you precious time to act before the agent reaches your area.
In today’s increasingly connected world, these kinds of apps can provide you with crucial information before it even hits the headlines of your local news.
Tokyo sarin gas attack
Keep a SAME-capable radio on at your home at all times.
Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) is a specific protocol used to broadcast emergency warning messages.
There are alarm clock/radio combinations available on the market with SAME alert capability. This constantly scans for government disaster alerts in your geographic region. These radios offer a variety of modern features and options, all while providing reliable Emergency Alert System (EAS) alerts.
An example of an EAS alert on a phone
These kinds of radios can work in silence for years, in the corner of a room. Then the instant there’s an emergency or suspected terrorist attack, your EAS-capable radio will alert you so that you can take immediate action. These radios are constantly monitoring for EAS alerts, and there are a host of these alert notifications possible. You’re likely used to tornado, hurricane, or amber alerts through these systems. Terrorist alerts are possible as well, though, and allow you to gather information 24/7 with minimal effort on your part.
Some of the relevant EAS codes here include ‘SPW’ (Shelter in Place Warning), ‘CDW’ (Civil Danger Warning), ‘HMW’ (Hazardous Materials Warning), and ‘CEM’ (Civil Emergency Message).
Pay attention to strange reactions in people from a distance
Choking, chest tightness, convulsing – these are all common signs and symptoms of a chemical weapons release. Should you notice that a large amount of people have suddenly and inexplicably begun to exhibit these symptoms (e.g., you’re at a football game and notice the people on the opposite side of the bleachers acting strangely), it may be the result of an attack.
Odds are that if you see these signs and symptoms around you that it is already too late for you. However, duing the Japanese subway attack, people at the subway stop were able to see passengers exhibiting clear signs and symptoms of something. True, they didn’t know what at the time, but this perhaps gave many enough warning to escape. Dosage matters with nerve agents.
A high enough dosage - which, admittedly, isn’t a lot - will kill you, but as Gulf War Syndrome has demonstrated, low exposures are survivable. Wind direction matters as well.
If you are upwind of the release, as the buildings behind the Aum Shimrikyo sprayer incident were, you could have a fighting chance.
Image of VX drum in US Army munitions supply
If you notice a combination of pinpoint pupils and excessive coughing, convulsing and choking, you should be prepared to evacuate the scene immediately.
Look out for pinpoint pupils as an early sign of a nerve agent release
An example of pinpoint pupils, medically referred to as ‘myosis.’
Nerve agents commonly cause the pupils to shrink to such a small size that they virtually disappear. People who have been exposed will have eyes that look almost like something from a horror movie – there will be the coloring of the iris and not much else.
This was one of the first things that was realized about nerve agents. Early scientists didn’t know how deadly a compound they had created, but they did know that they had strange things happening with their eyes. They were experiencing pinpoint pupils.
Unfortunately, because of the way that nerve agents impact the eyes, a sudden blurring of vision accompanies exposure. This can make it difficult to tell if you have pinpoint pupils or not.
For further proof that pinpoint pupils are indicative of nerve agent release, during the 1980s, UN troops were sent to the Iraq border to investigate claims of possible nerve agent use. Six injured soldiers were at the scene the detectives were sent to.
Those exposed to what was later revealed to be tabun all had pinpoint pupils.
Image of Iranian soldier wearing gas mask from Iran-Iraq War.
So if everyone you see stepping out of a subway station has pinpoint pupils, or you find yourself talking to people with myosis from a town where a mysterious “illness” broke out yesterday, you may be witnessing the earliest signs of a nerve agent attack.
Limit your exposure to Nerve Agents
Sometimes, you may not be able to use an early alert system to keep yourself out of harm’s reach. You may just happen to find yourself somewhere dangerous. While the odds are that you’ll die if at ground zero, there are a number of variables that will increase your chances of survival.
Here are what some of them are…
Remove and throw away contaminated clothes once you clear the area
Remember, nerve agents are persistent in the environment. In other words, they like to stick around. They stick to clothing easily, and can potentially even kill others through mere exposure.
So if anyone survives exposure during a nerve agent attack, it’s absolutely crucial that you remove and destroy any contaminated clothing as soon as they clear the area.
When doing this, attempt to avoid touching the exterior of the clothing with bare skin. Using medical shears to actually cut clothing off rather than pulling it over the head may be preferable as well. Once this clothing is off, carefully bag it and dispose of it as hazardous waste.
Don’t touch anything with your bare hands
Nerve agents can be absorbed directly through the skin, so it’s important to be very careful what you touch in the event of a nerve agent attack.
Unfortunately, nerve agents are capable of persisting in the environment for long periods—sometimes up to three weeks. So even if it’s been weeks since the last attack, it’s critical to remain vigilant. Do not remove your personal protective equipment (PPE) and do not touch anything with your bare hands.
If you do make physical contact with any nerve agent in the area, you may absorb it. While this may just be a low dosage you incur (which isn’t necessarily fatal), you really have no way of knowing until it’s too late. Even then, low dosages of nerve agents can still lead to chronic health problems that last a lifetime.
So it’s absolutely critical that you not touch anything at all with bare skin. If you must touch something (e.g., a door handle), we recommend wearing heavy-duty protective gloves like our HAZ-Gloves. They will provide a physical barrier between your skin and the nerve agent that will keep you from absorbing a lethal dose through your hands while still enabling you to interact with the environment around you.
Do what you can to avoid breathing it
Nerve agents are most deadly when they’re directly inhaled.
There are two ways to avoid this: don’t be near the release at all, or have a full-face gas mask with an appropriately rated filter. We’ve already spoken about the steps you can take to avoid a potential attack altogether. But what about the attacks you can’t avoid?
For example, what if you were in a crowded metro station when Aum Shinrikyo launched their attack?
Image of WW2 UK poster
A gas mask or a low-profile respirator would be a potential lifesaver in this kind of situation.
A full-face respirator like a MIRA Safety CM-6M would fit inside of a larger backpack. The CM-6M is a purpose built, professional-grade piece of safety equipment meant specifically for protecting the user from harmful chemical agents like nerve agents. When equipped with the CBRN filter like the NBC-77 SOF that is rated to block out a multitude of nerve agents, it is the best possible respiratory and facial protection a civilian could ask for.
If you don’t have a gas mask, the old wet rag or t-shirt is better than nothing. According to the US Armed Forces Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Survival Manual, if one is able to hold a wet cloth over their mouth and nose, it will help to protect their respiratory passages against some chemical agents.
Image of WW1 soldiers with gas masks
Is this anywhere near as effective as a gas mask? Not even close. But it could potentially make a difference. Remember; nerve agents are often distributed as an aerosol—a collection of miniscule droplets suspended in air. Since this is not a true gas, there is a very small chance that a wettened cloth will keep many of these aerosolized particles from ending up in your respiratory system. But do not count on this as a long term solution.
Wear Full-Body PPE
As mentioned before, nerve agents can be absorbed by the skin. Meaning a gas mask alone will likely not be sufficient under prolonged exposure.
In some cases, you may have no alternative but to move through/escape an area that’s been subjected to a nerve gas attack. That may mean a terrorist attack on your home city, or military action on behalf of a ruthless foreign power. During the Iran-Iraq War, for instance, Hussein was known for using standard munitions to pin down civilians and enemy forces—then hitting them with chemical weapons that would sink down into their entrenched positions and basements.
In any of these cases, you will need full-body protection including a HAZMAT Suit, full-face gas mask, filter, gloves, boots and chemtape. A few HAZMAT suits and gas masks kept stored away in a basement or in larage sized bags can be invaluable for families in these types of situations. After a direct nerve agent attack, the only choice left is to escape the area. To survive that escape requires total-body protection.
Protective equipment such as the aforementione CM-6M gas mask with the NBC-77 SOF filter combined with the MIRA Safety HAZ-Suit, HAZ-Gloves, Butyl Overboots, and taped off at the seams with ChemTape can offer head to toe nerve gas protection. This will buy more than enough time for to escape the contaminated area.
(Image courtesy of Blue Line Syndicate Group)
If ready access to a HAZMAT suit is not available, the best that one can do is to cover their skin as much as possible. As noted above, nerve agents are often deployed as an aerosol, and they can be absorbed through mere contact.
Normal clothes won’t provide the kind of impermeable barrier you get from a MIRA Safety HAZ-SUIT, but they can still help. If you can keep these particles from coming into contact with skin, you’ll stand a much greater chance of survival.
Escape the Danger Zone
Do not go downwind of where you suspect the release to be
Once aerosolized, nerve agents can be dispersed far and wide—with a dose as small as 6 milligrams proving fatal.
So, it goes without staying—you should absolutely remain inside after a known attack. It’s worth noting that when chlorine gas clouds are released from pool chemical companies, sheltering in place is the common advice that officials send out to their communities.
Like any other aerosolized threat, nerve agents can be carried on the wind and are thus it’s important to be mindful of what’s upwind or downwind of a recent attack.
Consider, for example, a potential nerve agent attack on New York City. A suspected terror alert goes out over the Emergency Alert System, taking over every radio station in the area with that distinctive shrill, beeping noise.
If you’re in or around New York City at the time of the attack, then you’ll obviously want to escape the area. But it’s crucial that you don’t try to escape downwind of the attack. Nerve agents – and chemical weaponry in general – can travel for miles on wind currents. Throughout the chemical arms race, wind patterns were extensively studied and researched. Governments wanted to know where they could drop their bombs to kill as many people as possible with the aid of the wind.
Image of wind carrying gas during World War 1
They largely discovered that slight winds worked the best in their favor. If windspeed was above 10mph or if severe rainfall occurred, then chemical weapons would often be dispersed without favorable results.
Those same slight wind conditions played a major factor in the creation of Gulf War Syndrome as well. As America blew up chemical weapons facilities throughout Iraq, it is estimated that the wind may have carried the residues of those chemicals hundreds of miles. This chronic, low-level exposure to nerve agents is believed by many to be the outright cause of Gulf War syndrome.
Should you suspect any form of nerve agent attack, you want to avoid being downwind of Ground Zero as much as possible.
Decontaminate and Hunker Down
Cleanse your skin as quickly as possible
Nerve agents can kill in a matter of minutes after the skin is exposed—so it’s crucial to decontaminate as quickly as you can.
In the American military, soldiers are given the M291 or M258A1 Skin Decontamination Kit before being shipped out to an are where nerve agent attacks are likely. (The M291 has replaced the M258A1).
These kits contain little wipe packets soaked in special solutions to help neutralize nerve agents that have come into contact with skin. M291 packets can be purchased online from a number of CBRN product dealers.
These kits contain powdered Ambergard XE-555 Resin. This is the US military’s best spot decontamination of skin measure to date. According to the US Army, it can even be applied to the face and around wounds without fear of chemical poisoning.
For civilians, the best alternative is MIRA Safety’s MDG-1 Decontamination Glove. This single-use glove contains a layer of ultra-fine montmorillonite powder. Once you strap on the glove and start rubbing the exposed area, the powder will lift away particulate threats while minimizing off-gassing.
When it comes to nerve agent exposure, time is a crucial factor.
The quicker one can get these agents off the skin, the greater the chances of survival. Even if you’re simply using water to rinse the compound off your skin. USNR Captain Dick Couch (Ret.) stated that one should rinse out their eyes first with water, mild saline, or Artificial Tears, and then begin thoroughly rinsing off the skin. Using large amounts of water is desired.
In one experiment, the nerve agent GB was used on animals. It was found that if the animals were fully rinsed with water for two minutes, it took 10.6x more GB to kill them than it would have otherwise. Access to plenty of water within a matter of minutes can help keep you alive.
Seal off your house if you shelter in place
Homes are not completely airtight. But there are a few key measures you can take to ensure the air inside your home remains safe to breathe for as long as possible.
The first key step is to seal the gaps around windows, doorways, chimneys and other openings. Fortunately, you can actually use the same Kappler Chemtape that seals your suit for this purpose. Covering vents with plastic sheeting can also help.
Image of American bunkers during the 1950s
Remember, some nerve agents can persist in the environment for weeks at a time. So if you do decide to shelter in place, be ready to do so for quite a while.
That means storing weeks of food, water, medical supplies, and other daily necessities. Some form of radio is also going to be required so you’ll know when it is safe to go outside, if more chemical releases have taken place, or if foreign troops have moved into an area.
If you already havea fallout/bomb shelter at your property, there are filtration systems that will help to ensure that the air within the shelter is secured from nerve agents. This allows only safe air to enter the shelter. However, if supply chain issues make these unavailable, there are also positive pressure units that make it impossible for any type of outside air to enter one’s home.
In addition to sealing off all potential points of entry into one’s dwelling and stocking plenty of daily necessities, these two air systems can also help to give a further guarantee that a family can survive a nerve agent attack by sheltering in place.
You can survive a Nerve Agent Attack
Militaries around the world have developed their own nerve agents for one reason and one reason only … because they are massively deadly. And they are incredibly difficult to safeguard against.
Options still exist to help to keep one alive in the event of a nerve agent release, but they do require a bit of pre-planning and investment. If you make these crucial preparations in time, you stand a much higher chance of surviving a nerve agent attack.
As long as you’ve got the necessary protective gear (including a HAZMAT suit and gas mask), radio equipment for early warning, and a little bit of knowledge on the telltale signs of nerve agent exposure, you’ve got a fighting chance against a potential nerve agent attack.
You can improve your odds even further by adding the air filtration equipment mentioned above, but that kind of gear comes at a much higher price. Regardless of your economic circumstances, simple steps taken today can greatly increase your chances of surviving a nerve agent attack in the future.
Frequently Asked Questions
According to the US Department of Defense, there are a substantial number of different nations either experimenting with chemical weapons, known to possess them, or suspected to possess them. In many cases, those with chemical weapons are also in possession of nerve agents.
China, North Korea, Egypt, Israel, Ethiopia, Taiwan, Sudan, and Burma are all suspected of having chemical weaponry.
USA, Russia, France, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Syria are all known to have chemical weaponry or to have experimented with them in the past.
A nerve agent can kill within a matter of minutes. The amount absorbed/inhaled, the purity of the CW, the type of nerve agent, and the amount of fat content underneath the skin all are factors to take into account when it comes to the speed by which a nerve agent can kill.
Typically, death can occur in less than ten minutes. In some cases, depending on exposure, individuals may suffer for several days before succumbing to their symptoms.
The most common nerve agents are tabun, soman, VX, and sarin. These are the most widely-developed and deployed nerve agents used by various nations from around the world.
Another, newer class of nerve agents known as “Novichok” were designed by the Russians beginning in 1971. Engineered as a way to get around existing sanctions that limited the use of the nerve agents mentioned above, these newer nerve agents are many times more deadly and have been used in multiple assassination attempts over recent years.
Yes, but they are not universal, nor are they guaranteed to work. Worse still, the medicine can be just as bad as the disease in some cases—with treatments that yield health consequences of their own. Atropine and PAM (pyridine aldoxime methiodide) are commonly distributed to troops who are at risk of exposure to nerve agents in the line of duty.
When exposed, soldiers will jab a syringe of the solution into their thighs. If they’re fortunate, they’ll live.