As the recent Chemical Warfare Agent (CWA) attack in Salisbury, United Kingdom, has demonstrated all too clearly, the deliberate use of toxic substances as a weapon of terror, presents a risk not only to the intended victim or victims but to the public at large and to the specially trained hazmat safety teams charged with responding to the incident.
The challenge for first responders in such scenarios is to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of a deliberate act of chemical warfare, to neutralize and dispose of the threat and to make the area safe - a process that requires balancing with the need to preserve evidence.
In this blog post we explore the characteristics of the nerve agent Novichok that has been identified as the CWA used in the Sergei and Yulia Skripal attack on 4 March 2018.
We also discuss the role that realistic hazmat safety training scenarios can play in preparing first responders for the unique dangers of similar incidents involving CWAs.
Understanding nerve agents
The toxic component of any chemical weapon is referred to as its “chemical agent.” Different forms of CWA are commonly divided into several categories (such as choking, blister, blood, nerve and riot control agents) based on their mode of action, the means by which they penetrate and their effect on the human body.
Nerve agents are highly toxic and fast acting, and are so-named due to the way in which they affect the transmission of nerve impulses in the nervous system.
They commonly enter the body through the respiratory tract, although they can also be absorbed through the eyes or skin, as the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons website, explains:
“All nerve agents belong chemically to the group of organo-phosphorus compounds. They are stable and easily dispersed, highly toxic and have rapid effects both when absorbed through the skin and via respiration. Nerve agents can be manufactured by means of fairly simple chemical techniques. The raw materials are inexpensive and generally readily available.”
An overview of Novichok
The UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) has identified the CWA used in the Salisbury attack as Novichok.
Novichok, which translates literally as "newcomer" in Russian, forms part of a group of "fourth generation chemical weapons" that were developed in the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.
These highly toxic agents can exist in a variety of forms - some liquid and some solid / powder - and can take as little as thirty seconds to take effect, depending on the route of absorption.
Some of the agents are also designed to work as binary weapons, which means that the agent is stored as two separate, and less toxic, ingredients, which only achieve full effect when they are combined. This means that the agents can be more easily handled, transported and stored - and can more readily escape detection.
The symptoms of Novichok are thought be very similar to other nerve agents - including raised dilated pupils, profuse sweating, decreased heart rate, nausea, vomiting, convulsions, respiratory failure, coma, cardiac arrest or death.
It's also believed that some Novichok variants have been specifically designed to withstand nerve agent antidotes.
Training and safeguarding for chemical warfare first reponse
While deliberate acts of aggression using toxic chemical substances are rare, it is vital that those tasked with first response and hazmat safety are equipped with the knowledge and skills to handle such an incident.
As hazmat safety instructors seek out realistic, engaging and cost-effective training solutions, the use of simulator chemical detectors can have a vital role to play.
Electronic simulator detectors can be invaluable in preparing military crews, first responders and law enforcement personnel with the hands-on experience of identifying and responding to a deliberate chemical release.
One such example is the LCD3.3-SIM, which accurately replicates the appearance and functionality of the LCD3.3 but which responds instead to safe electronic sources to represent the chemical threat.
The LCD3.3-SIM simulate the effects of toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) and nerve, blister, blood and choking agents, without any health and safety risk to trainees or their instructors. And by removing the need to rely on chemical simulants (which are harmful to individuals and the environment in even the smallest of quantities) it’s possible to set up realistic hazmat safety training scenarios in any location - both indoors or outdoors and within public buildings.
Ease of set up is a key factor in any training exercise, and with the use of chemical simulators for CBRNe/WMD/Hazmat exercises, set-up time is kept to a minimum - usually less than ten minutes. Crucially too, working with an electronic source also ensures there is no risk of the scenario changing between the time of set up and when the training exercise begins.
The ability to be able to be able to identify and record student error is another feature which can prove invaluable for effective learning outcomes. If for example, a trainee hasn’t followed the correct set up procedures, then the simulator recognizes and records this information for After Action Review (AAR.)
For many hazmat instructors, the ability to be able to be able to carry out multi-detector, multi-substance training with the same scenario can also be hugely beneficial for trainees.
With this need in mind, the LCD3.3-SIM is also compatible with a wide variety of SIM products including the AP2C-SIM, AP4C-SIM, CAMSIM, and RAID-M100-SIM. It can also be used in conjunction with the Argon PlumeSIM system, in the carrying out of table-top CBRNe training exercises and instrumented wide-area field exercises.
Realistic, hands-on scenarios offer many advantages for hazmat safety training in preparing crews for the unique challenges of live chemical incidents, be they accidental or deliberate. And, as such, the use of simulator detectors in training scenarios can make an invaluable contribution to trainees' confidence, expertise and operational readiness.