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Chemical Terrorism Agents

What are chemical terrorism agents?

Most chemical terrorism agents are liquids that can be put into the air and then absorbed through the skin or breathed into the lungs. The chemicals may cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes or nose
  • Breathing problems or suffocation
  • Nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain
  • Loss of muscle control or paralysis
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Death

Chemical agents come in several forms. Examples are:

  • Mustard gas, which is a chemical that causes blistering of the skin, irritation and swelling of the airways, vomiting, and diarrhea. There are antidotes that limit or stop the effects of mustard gas.
  • Cyanide, when mixed with an acid, creates a poisonous gas. Cyanide keeps the cells of the body from using oxygen. When this happens, the cells die. Large doses can kill within minutes. There are antidotes to cyanide poisoning.
  • Phosgene, which is a chemical that causes swelling and fluid buildup in the lungs. Several hours after exposure to this chemical you will start to cough and have trouble breathing. Hours to days later, as the chemical causes more swelling, more fluid builds up in the lungs. Eventually the fluid can make it so hard to breathe that it causes death.
  • Sarin, which is a chemical that affects the nervous system. It causes confusion, disorientation, delusions, and hallucinations. It also causes blurred vision, a rapid heart rate, slurred speech, convulsions, paralysis, and inability to breathe. There are antidotes, but they must be given soon after exposure until the effects of the chemical wear off.

What should I do if I am exposed to a chemical terrorism agent?

If you breathe in a chemical vapor, it may start affecting you within seconds to minutes. Chemicals that are absorbed through the skin have an effect in minutes to hours.

If you or someone you know might have been exposed to a chemical agent, get medical care right away. Call emergency medical services or go to the nearest emergency room.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-02-26
Last reviewed: 2014-12-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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