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Frequently Asked Questions About Biological and Chemical Agents

What are the differences between biological and chemical weapons?

The differences between biological and chemical weapons lie in their makeup, dissemination, and effects.

Biological Agents

Chemical Agents

Natural origin

Man-made

Difficult, costly, small-scale production

Large-scale, cheaper, industrial production

Odorless and tasteless

Noticeable odor or taste

Disseminated as aerosols

Disseminated as aerosols or liquids

Don't penetrate skin

Can penetrate skin

Delayed onset of physical effects

Relatively immediate physical effects

Crisis measured in weeks, months

Crisis measured in hours, days

Delayed response that would build

Immediate, large response

Do chemical agents have any legitimate, practical uses?

Chemicals that are closely related to chemical weapons do have legitimate uses. Some nerve agents, for example, are similar to some insecticides and to medications that treat the disease myasthenia gravis. A byproduct of sulfur mustard is a long-time cancer chemotherapy drug. Chlorine and phosgene are also common industrial compounds.

Are chemical weapons allowed to be used in war?

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention bans the use, production, stockpiling, or acquisition of chemical weapons, requires the elimination of current stockpiles, and allows verification inspections. The United States and 148 other countries have agreed to the treaty.

Are biological agents allowed to be used in war?

The 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention bans the use, production, stockpiling, or acquisition of biological weapons. It does allow research with agents for vaccines or defensive purposes. The treaty does not include formal verification, so its effectiveness is limited. The United States and 161 other countries have agreed to it.

Should I have my own supply of antibiotics in case I'm exposed to biological weapons?

Antibiotics are prescription drugs that should be taken only under a doctor's advice. No one antibiotic can protect against all types of biological weapons -- or against all diseases. And holding on to antibiotics isn't a good idea because they'll expire eventually and become ineffective.

Should I have a gas mask to protect myself against chemical and biological weapons?

Gas masks do not provide protection unless you are wearing one at the exact moment of an attack with chemical or biological weapons. It's obviously impractical to wear a gas mask all the time. Besides, to work effectively, masks must be fitted to the wearer, who must be trained how to use them -- such as members of the military. Gas masks available for retail sale aren't guaranteed to work. There's also the possibility of accidental suffocation from wearing a mask incorrectly.

Can I get vaccinated against biological weapons -- anthrax, plague, smallpox, or other diseases -- that might be spread by terrorists?

No. You can't get a prescription for a vaccine like other drugs; doctors and hospitals don't have vaccine supplies like they do for normal pharmaceuticals. They would be made available only in emergency situations and to those who would be most likely to be exposed.

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