Terrorism: Background on Chemical, Biological, and Toxin Weapons and Options for Lessening Their Impact
CRS Report for Congress
Terrorism: Background on Chemical,
Biological, and Toxin Weapons and
Options for Lessening Their Impact
Updated December 1, 2004
Dana A. Shea
Analyst in Science and Technology Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Terrorism: Background on Chemical, Biological, and
Toxin Weapons and Options for Lessening Their Impact
The catastrophic terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent
anthrax mailings have sensitized the nation to acts of domestic terror. The
confirmation of terrorist interest in weapons of mass destruction and the vulnerability
of the United States to such attack have highlighted the potential that these weapons
may be used as weapons of terror. The framework of weapons of mass destruction
(WMD) includes chemical, biological, and toxin weapons.
Chemical, biological, and toxin weapons can produce mass casualties if
effectively disseminated, but have varying and different effects. Chemical weapons,
predominantly man-made chemicals, require the largest amounts of material to be
effective and cause their effects in minutes to hours. Biological weapons made of
naturally occurring pathogens require the least material to be effective, but generally
have an incubation period of several days before symptoms show themselves. Toxin
weapons, such as ricin, chemical agents formed by biological processes, are
intermediate between the two in both amount and timescale. Treatment protocols for
chemical, biological, and toxin weapons vary by agent, ranging from weapons with
effective treatment and prophylaxis to weapons which have no known cure nor
Chemical, biological, and toxin weapons pose additional concerns beyond mass
casualties. These weapons may contaminate the area in which they are used,
emergency vehicles, and first responders. The wide array of potential symptoms
from chemical, biological, and toxin weapons makes identification of the causal
agent difficult and complicates treatment. Additionally, public fears relating to
disease and poisoning could increase the effect of a chemical, biological, or toxin
attack, as worried, unexposed people request treatment from medical facilities. In
extreme cases, public hysteria has been postulated as an outcome from mass
Several initiatives are underway to reduce the potential value of chemical,
biological, and toxin weapons. One approach has been through funding significant
increases in the public health system’s preparedness and response capacity.
Additionally, facilities and researchers possessing “select agents” have been
registered in a national database. Non-governmental agencies, such as the National
Academy of Sciences, and professional societies have also been active in developing
policies and options to lower the threat of terrorist attack.
Potential options to further decrease the odds of chemical, biological, and toxin
terrorism include regulating and registering domestic purchase of “dual-use”
equipment; further development of the public health system; federal incentives for
research and development into chemical, biological, and toxin medicines, vaccines,
countermeasures and detectors; informational public outreach programs to properly
inform the public about the risks involved; and voluntary media codes. This report
will be updated as circumstances warrant.
In troduction ......................................................1
Chemical, Biological, and Toxin Weapons..............................1
Terrorist Development of Chemical, Biological, and Toxin Weapons.....2
Medical Treatment for Chemical, Biological, and Toxin Weapons’ Effects.....3
Potential Impacts of Chemical, Biological, and Toxin Weapons.............4
Approaches Preventing Terrorist Use of Chemical, Biological, and Toxin
W eapons ....................................................7
Federal, State, and Local Government Actions.......................7
Select Non-governmental Proposals and Actions .....................9
Potential Policy Options for the 109th Congress.........................10
Increasing Production Barriers...................................10
Directed Public Health Funding..................................10
Reducing Public Concern......................................11
Voluntary Media Codes........................................14
Terrorism: Background on Chemical,
Biological, and Toxin Weapons and Options
for Lessening Their Impact
The domestic approach to potential terrorist attacks using chemical, biological,
or toxin weapons attempts to balance a “post-event” consequence management
approach with a “pre-event,” preventative approach. Legislation and plans have been
developed to address the casualties from chemical, biological, or toxin weapons,
generally focused on the physical consequences of such weapon use and methods to
provide prompt consequence management. Further efforts regarding public outreach,
enhancing treatment and prophylaxis through federal initiatives, or additional
regulation of materials used in developing chemical, biological, and toxin weapons
are areas policymakers may revisit as preventative approaches to reduce the enhanced
terror aspect of these weapons
This report provides a general overview of chemical, biological, and toxin
weapons and their treatment; a summary of why some of these weapons may be more
attractive to terrorist groups than conventional weapons; select aspects of the current
response against chemical, biological and toxin terrorism; and potential options
towards lessening these weapons’ impact.
Chemical, Biological, and Toxin Weapons
The widespread public unease following the anthrax mailings and the continued
concern regarding possible terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear,
chemical, biological, or radiological – have highlighted the potential these weapons
may have to a terrorist group.1 This report focuses on chemical, biological, and toxin
weapons, whose impact and nature differ from each other and from nuclear or
Chemical weapons are chemical compounds that have a strong, deleterious
effect on the human body, even when encountered in small doses. The different
types of chemical weapons include vesicants, which blister and burn on contact;
1 For an overview of the potential terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, see CRS
Report RL31332, Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Terrorist Threat, by Steve Bowman.
For information on small-scale use of chemical, biological, and toxin weapons, see CRS
Report RL32391, Small-scale Terrorist Attacks Using Chemical and Biological Agents: An
Assessment Framework and Preliminary Comparisons by Dana A. Shea and Frank Gottron.
choking agents, which cause lung damage; and nerve agents, which interfere with the
nervous system and may lead to death. The effects from chemical weapons may
occur very quickly after exposure, on the order of minutes to hours.2
Biological weapons are pathogens that cause disease and illness in infected
humans. Because the pathogens multiply within the victim, a small initial amount
of pathogen is sufficient to cause infection. As a consequence, biological weapons
require much less material than chemical weapons to produce equivalent casualties
and generally take longer to produce effects. Biological weapons include diseases
that are primarily incapacitating, such as Q fever, as well as those that are lethal, such
as smallpox. Some biological weapons are contagious pathogens, such as smallpox,
and have the potential to spread the effects of an attack by traveling from victim to
victim. The symptoms from a biological weapon attack would require some time to
develop, so a covert biological attack might not be recognized for several days.3
Toxin weapons are primarily illness-inducing chemicals formed from living
creatures, such as bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. Toxins range in effect from
disabling to acutely toxic. The most deadly compound currently known, botulinum
toxin, is a bacterial toxin. Toxins are more potent than chemical weapons, requiring
less material to produce equivalent casualties, but they are not self-reproducing, so
more material is required than for a biological weapon. Symptoms from toxin
exposure typically occur on a timescale intermediate between chemical and
biological weapons, generally appearing over the course of several hours.4
Terrorist Development of Chemical, Biological, and Toxin
The difficulty of obtaining or developing chemical, biological, or toxin weapons
has made their use very rare, but these weapons have been used for terror purposes.
Sarin, a chemical nerve agent, was used in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 by the
Aum Shinrikyo cult.5 Anthrax bacteria, a biological agent, was used in 2001,
infecting individuals in Connecticut, New York, Florida, and the District of
Columbia. Also, salmonella bacteria was used by the Rajneeshee cult in 1984 in an
attempt to influence local election turnout. Ricin, a toxin, was mailed to the White
House in 2003 and Congress in 2004.
Additionally, there have been arrests and news reports of individuals and
terrorist organizations that have tried to develop and use chemical and toxin
2 For more information on specific chemical agents see chapters 1 - 17 of Medical Aspects
of Chemical and Biological Warfare, Frederick R. Sidell, Ernest T. Takafuji, David R.
Franz, Eds., found online at
[http://www.nbc -me d.org/ SiteContent/HomePage/WhatsNew/MedAspects/contents.html].
3 For more information on specific biological agents see ibid., chapters 18 - 29.
4 For more information on specific toxin agents see ibid., chapters 30 - 34.
5 For an overview of the Aum Shinrikyo use of sarin in the Tokyo subway system, see David
E. Kaplan, “Aum Shinrikyo (1995)” in Jonathan B. Tucker, Ed., Toxic Terror: Assessing
Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) 2000.
weapons. Videotapes acquired and broadcast by CNN have shown the effects of a
chemical agent on test animals.6 In 2003, British law-enforcement officials arrested
several people accused of manufacturing ricin in a London apartment.7
Previously, it was thought that the difficulties of developing, weaponizing, and
disseminating chemical, biological, and toxin weapons provided high barriers to their
use by non-state actors.8 Advances in molecular biology, chemistry, and engineering
have increased the ease by which biological and chemical compounds can be
manufactured. Purchasable civilian technologies may be applicable to manufacture
of chemical, biological, and toxin weapons.9 The Defense Threat Reduction Agency
was able to assemble the requisite equipment from civilian sources. Under Project
BACUS, a biological agent production facility was successfully built in Nevada from
dual-use technology without drawing regulatory attention.10 Some experts maintain
that the technological barriers to chemical, biological, and toxin use have
Medical Treatment for Chemical, Biological, and
Toxin Weapons’ Effects
Chemical, biological, and toxin weapons also differ in their medical treatment
and the availability of effective prophylaxis.11 Chemical weapons, with their quick-
acting effects, must be treated as promptly as possible. Because of the large range
of potential effects caused by chemical weapons, there is no universal treatment for
chemical weapon exposure.12 Exposure to nerve agents can be directly treated with
medication to prevent or reduce symptoms. Exposure to vesicants, such as mustard
gas, is generally untreatable; most people exposed will exhibit the agent’s effects.
6 Nic Robertson, “Disturbing Scenes of Death Show Capability with Chemical Gas,”
CNN.com, August 19, 2002, found online at
[http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/08/19/terror.tape.chemi cal/index.html ].
7 For more information on the toxin ricin, see CRS Report RS21383 Ricin: Technical
Background and Potential Role in Terrorism, by Dana A. Shea and Frank Gottron.
8 U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Technologies Underlying Weapons of
Mass Destruction, OTA-BP-ISC-115 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office)
9 Such technologies which have both a civilian and a military use are commonly referred to
as “dual-use” technologies.
10 As reported in Judith Miller, Stephan Engelberg, and William Broad, Germs: Biological
Weapons and America’s Secret War, (New York: Simon and Schuster) 2001, p.121.
11 Prophylaxis is generally spoken of in terms of medical or chemical treatments to protect
individuals from chemical, biological, and toxin weapons. In some cases, it also includes
mechanical measures such as protective suits or masks.
12 Atropine and diazepam can be used to treat the effects of nerve agent exposure. See
National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
Emergency Room Procedures in Chemical Hazard Emergencies. A Job Aid, found online
The effects from vesicant exposure, primarily blisters and lesions, can be treated. In
addition, injury from exposure to choking agents, such as chlorine, can be
ameliorated by prompt medical treatment to limit permanent lung damage.
Many biological agents either respond to medical treatment or have effective
prophylaxis. Single or combination antibiotic regimens, if employed early in the
course of the disease, are effective against many bacteria that might be used as
biological weapons. Such timely treatment may be difficult if recognition of a
bioterror event is delayed. Some viruses targeted as biological weapons have
effective prophylaxis in the form of vaccines, while others reportedly respond to
antiviral drugs.13 However, some potential biological weapons lack prophylaxis,
treatment, or cure. Additionally, biological weapons can be engineered, with some
effort, in a laboratory to be resistant to specific countermeasures.
Treatment of injuries sustained from toxin weapons may be more complicated.
Anti-toxins and toxoid vaccines can be developed against toxin weapons, but the
process for doing so is involved and time-consuming. Consequently, stores of these
medicines are limited in scope,14 and a large number of toxin weapon casualties could
exhaust local supplies. Some toxins, such as botulinum toxin, cause death by
paralyzing the muscles used for breathing. These toxins can be treated with
supportive care, through artificial ventilation and other means, until the patients
For bioterror events, it is difficult to project the likely treatment success rate.
Treatment of chemical, biological, and toxin weapons relies on providing medication
within a relatively narrow time window. If medication is not provided fairly quickly
after exposure or the development of symptoms, depending on the weapon, full
recovery is unlikely.
Potential Impacts of Chemical, Biological,
and Toxin Weapons
By their nature, terrorist events are unexpected, shocking, and often perceived
as random, and they evoke a sense of fear and uncertainty. Chemical, biological, and
toxin weapons use may contribute additional considerations. In part, this is because
chemical, biological, and toxin weapons have the potential to cause mass casualties.
Effectively disseminated, a single release of a chemical or biological weapon could
13 See L. Borio, T. Inglesby, C.J. Peters, A.L. Schmaljohn, J.M. Hughes, P.B. Jahrling, T.
Ksiazek, K.M. Johnson, A. Meyerhoff, T. O’Toole, M. S. Ascher, J. Bartlett, J.G. Breman,
E.M. Eitzen, Jr., M. Hamburg, J. Hauer, D. A. Henderson, R.T. Johnson, G. Kwik, M.
Layton, S. Lillibridge, G.J. Nabel, M.T. Osterholm, T.M. Perl, P. Russell, and K. Tonat,
“Hemorrhagic Fever Viruses as Biological Weapons: Medical and Public Health
Management,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 2391-2405 (May 8, 2002).
14 See Arturo Casadevall, “Passive Antibody Administration (Immediate Immunity) as a
Specific Defense Against Biological Weapons,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 8, No.
cause tens of thousands of casualties.15 This ability to inflict great numbers of
casualties may cause terrorists to view chemical or biological weapons as a viable
means for promoting an agenda of terror and destruction. The impact of these
weapons may be magnified by other factors.
The use of chemical, biological, or toxin weapons in terror attacks could
complicate emergency response due to the need to establish special care facilities for
the victims, such as decontamination areas, and the need to protect first responders
from the weapon’s effects. If first responders became victims through inadequate
personal protective equipment or contamination of emergency vehicles, increased
casualties and greater social disruption could result.
Furthermore, chemical, biological, and toxin weapons may produce a wide array
of effects. Terrorists may believe they can select chemical, biological, or toxin
weapons to produce specific results for certain situations. They may believe that
these weapons increase their operational flexibility.16 Since for some chemical,
biological, and toxin weapons there exists a delay before symptoms develop,
terrorists may feel that their use will increase the chances of successfully avoiding
arrest. The variety of potential effects and timing can complicate medical treatment
and preparedness, as it might not be readily apparent what chemical or pathogen has
caused the symptoms, nor what antidote will prove most effective.17
The use of chemical or toxin weapons could generate a disproportionate public
response because of a broad public perception that their use is akin to poisoning.
According to experts, there has long been fear of and antipathy towards the use of
poison. It is especially frightening to the victim, as the symptoms may seem to
appear from nowhere. Poisons lacking an antidote may raise concerns further, as the
victim perceives that there is no recourse or cure available. The dread generated
from the inability to control the situation, and oftentimes one’s own bodily safety, is
common to victims of chemical weapons, and multiplies anxieties related to these
Biological weapon use may evoke deep-seated concerns regarding epidemic
disease and sickness.19 Plagues have historical and religious associations,20 and more
15 U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Proliferation of Weapons of Mass
Destruction: Assessing the Risks, OTA-ISC-559 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office, August 1993).
16 For an overview of potential terrorist motivations with respect to chemical or biological
weapons, see CRS Report RL31831, Terrorist Motivations for Chemical and Biological
Weapons Use: Placing the Threat in Context, by Audrey Kurth Cronin.
17 This was illustrated by the hostage deaths surrounding Russian soporific gas use. P. Baker
and S.B. Glasser, “U.S. Ambassador Critical of Russia In Hostage Crisis: Gas Secrecy May
Have Cost Lives, He Says,” The Washington Post, October 30, 2002.
18 For an overview of public perceptions of chemical, biological, and toxin weapons, see J.
Stern, The Ultimate Terrorists, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) 1999.
19 H.C. Holloway, A.E. Norwood, C.S. Fullerton, C.C. Engel, and R.J. Ursano, “The Threat
recent epidemics have left their mark on society.21 Furthermore, victims of diseases
that manifest symptoms externally, such as smallpox, may enhance concerns with
respect to contagion. Individuals infected by biological weapons may develop
marked anxieties in response to the uncertainty of their medical treatment options,
health condition, and prognosis.22 Trauma associated with being a victim of a
biological attack may itself inhibit understanding and recovery from the illness.23
Dread may also arise in those who have not been exposed, but fear that they may
have. These anxieties may cause common events to take on new negative meanings.
For example, during the anthrax mailings, there were many reports regarding white
powders found at people’s workplaces which were forwarded to law enforcement
authorities; the vast majority were not anthrax related.24
Because of heightened individual health anxieties about chemical, biological
and toxin weapons, some have suggested that their use could have the potential to
result, at the extreme, in panic. When sarin was introduced into the Tokyo subway
system in 1995, over 5,500 people arrived at hospitals requesting medical treatment,
but only 1,051 people had medical symptoms indicative of sarin exposure.25 In the
case of a widespread dissemination of chemical or biological weapons, the number
of people requesting treatment, and the difficulties involved in separating those with
actual illness from those with panic-induced symptoms, could greatly complicate
effective healthcare and possibly lead to greater public hysteria.
Public panic might have weighty ramifications. If a chemical or biological
weapon was disseminated widely, especially in the case of a contagious pathogen,
there might be government intervention to quarantine individuals or groups of
of Biological Weapons: Prophylaxis and Mitigation of Psychological and Social
Consequences,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 278, 425 (1997).
20 The Black Plague is estimated to have killed up to 25% of the total population of Europe.
The Old Testament of the Bible refers to plagues being brought down upon unbelievers.
21 The influenza epidemic of 1918 is estimated to have killed over 500 thousand people in
the United States and over 20 million people worldwide. J.K. Taubenberger , A.H. Reid,
A.E. Krafft, K.E. Bijwaard and T.G. Fanning, “Initial Genetic Characterization of the 1918
‘Spanish’ Influenza Virus,” Science, Vol. 275, 1793 (1997).
22 W.J. Broad and D. Grady, “Threats and Responses: The Victims; Science Slow to Ponder
the Ills That Linger in Anthrax Victims,” New York Times, September 16, 2002.
23 S. Wessely, K.C. Hyams, and R. Bartholomew, “Psychological Implications of Chemical
and Biological Weapons: Long Term Social and Psychological Effects May Be Worse Than
Acute Ones,” British Medical Journal, Vol. 323, 878 (2001).
24 For example, in Arizona, health authorities reportedly received and tested 1,100 samples
of substances that people feared might be contaminated. “Avoiding Panic Over Smallpox;
Our Stand: Educational Campaign Will Help Us Ward Off Bioterror Attack,” The Arizona
Republic, September 25, 2002.
25 T. Ballard, J. Pate, G. Ackerman, D. McCauley, and S. Lawson, “Chronology of Aum
Shinrikyo’s CBW Activities,” Monterey Institute of International Studies, March 15, 2001.
individuals.26 Panicked flight from areas of perceived danger could complicate
response efforts. Additionally, due to the newsworthy aspects of a chemical,
biological, and toxin weapon attack, public panic could propagate through media
reports to locations not affected by the attack.27
While hysterical, widespread panic is cited as a potential public response to
mass dissemination of a chemical, biological, or toxin weapon, it is not clear if this
is a likely outcome. The loss of public confidence and angry, perhaps violent,
competition for medical treatment have been suggested as possible results from a
chemical or biological weapon attack.28 On the other hand, public response after
natural disasters has not generally led to public hysteria or unreasoned aggression,
even when there has been significant anger directed towards government officials.29
In previous crises, public anxiety has been successfully reduced by government
Approaches Preventing Terrorist Use of Chemical,
Biological, and Toxin Weapons
Federal, State, and Local Government Actions
Federal policymakers have addressed reducing terrorist use of chemical,
biological, and toxin weapons through programs ameliorating these weapons’
destructive aspects and through increased vigilance in detecting and preventing terror
attacks in general. Local response to terrorist attack has been further developed
through federal programs providing state health departments grant-based funding in
order to address vulnerable aspects of their response system.30 These improvements
include further development of hospital and laboratory capacity; development of
response networks for timely communication during a bioterror event; development
of protocols for communicating between local, state, and federal responders; and
26 Issues relating to quarantine and state and federal response to chemical and biological
attack were explored in an exercise called TOPOFF. An exercise review can be found in
T.V. Inglesby, R. Grossman, and T. O’Toole, “A Plague on Your City: Observations from
TOPOFF,” Clinical Infectious Diseases, Vol. 32, 436 (2001).
27 For an overview of event communications issues, see “Special Feature: CDC's Pre-Event
Message Development Project,” in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, Vol. 2, Number 3, 2004.
28 H.C. Holloway, A.E. Norwood, C.S. Fullerton, C.C. Engel, and R.J. Ursano, “The Threat
of Biological Weapons: Prophylaxis and Mitigation of Psychological and Social
Consequences,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 278, 425 (1997) and
C.S. Fullerton and R.J. Ursano, “Behavioral and Psychological Responses to Chemical and
Biological Warfare,” Military Medicine, Vol. 155, 54 (1990).
29 H. Granot, “Planning For The Unthinkable: Psychosocial Reaction To Chemical and
Biological Warfare (CBW) Weapons,” Australian Journal of Emergency Management,
Spring, 21 (2000).
30 For more information on the development of state and local public health systems’
bioterrorism preparedness efforts, see CRS Report RL31719, An Overview of the U.S.
Public Health System in the Context of Bioterrorism, by Holly Harvey.
improved education of physicians and health care providers. A concerted federal
effort is underway to develop emergency reserves of medicines to combat chemical,
biological, and toxin casualties. Additionally, research proposals have been funded
in the areas of detection systems and enhanced epidemiological surveillance, to detect
chemical, biological, or toxin use as early as possible.31
Federal law enforcement agencies now have greater power to gather intelligence
on terror groups and their members.32 Increased information about terrorist groups,
combined with apprehension of any who have chemical, biological, or toxin
weapons, may provide further barriers to terrorist acquisition and use of these
weapons.33 A registration system for researchers and facilities possessing select
agents34 has been developed by the Department of Health and Human Services, and
additional restrictions regarding access to these agents have been made law.35
On November 25, 2002, President Bush signed into law the Homeland Security
Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-296). This act created the Department of Homeland Security
(DHS), which has the primary mission of preventing terrorist attacks in the United
States, reducing national terrorism vulnerability, and minimizing damage and aiding
in recovery from attacks. DHS coordinates federal preparedness and response to
chemical and biological terrorism, the latter in conjunction with the Department of
Health and Human Services. DHS has extended grants to local first responders to
increase local preparedness against chemical or biological weapons use,36 and also
has established, through the Science and Technology directorate, its own programs
for funding research into chemical and biological defense.37 The DHS has also
31 See CRS Report RL31576, Federal Research and Development Organization, Policy, and
Funding for Counterterrorism, by Genevieve J. Knezo.
32 See CRS Report RS21203, The USA PATRIOT Act: A Sketch, by Charles Doyle.
33 See CRS Issue Brief IB10119, Terrorism and National Security: Issues and Trends, by
Raphael Perl for an overview of policy responses to terrorist threat.
34 The select agent list, found at 42 CFR 73.0, consists of viruses, bacteria, rickettsiae, fungi,
and toxins and is determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Agents on the
select agent list are considered to have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health
35 See the USA PATRIOT Act (P.L. 107-56) and the Public Health Security and
Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act (P.L. 107-188). For an overview of the impact
of these actions, see CRS Report RL31354, Possible Impacts of Major Counter Terrorism
Security Actions on Research, Development, and Higher Education, by Genevieve J. Knezo.
36 For an overview of Department of Homeland Security grant programs and homeland
security related issues surrounding first responder preparedness, see CRS Report RL31227,
Terrorism Preparedness: Catalog of Selected Federal Assistance Programs, by Ben
37 For an overview of the Department of Homeland Security Research and Development
priorities and funding, see CRS Report RS21270, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
Research and Development: Funding, Organization, and Oversight, by Genevieve J. Knezo
and CRS Report RL31914, Research and Development in the Department of Homeland
Security, by Daniel Morgan.
developed and deployed the Bio-Watch program, which aims to detect releases of
biological weapons in urban areas.38
Select Non-governmental Proposals and Actions
Professional societies and non-governmental organizations are also involved in
exploring ways to lessen the likelihood of chemical, biological, and toxin weapon
use. Selected examples showing the range of activities addressing chemical,
biological, and toxin weapons are provided here.
The National Academy of Sciences has completed projects related to chemical,
biological, and toxin based terrorism. In addition to convening a Committee on
Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism and publishing a document
outlining its recommendations,39 the Institute of Medicine’s Board on Neuroscience
and Behavioral Health has issued a report on the psychological consequences of
terrorism.40 Projects include an ad hoc committee studying advanced biotechnology
standards and practices41 and the development of a robust, “adaptive” methodology
for prioritizing vulnerabilities to terrorism by the National Academy of Engineering.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science haveaddressed the
issues of risk analysis and communication and public health preparedness in a
bioterror context. The American Psychological Association has established a
Subcommittee on Psychology’s Response to Terrorism to aid in coordinating
psychology’s multifaceted response to terrorism, including coping with the threat of
terrorism. These efforts attempt to develop strategies to prepare for or deter the use
of terror weapons.
Many think tanks have addressed the concerns that chemical, biological, and
toxin weapons present to civilians. The Brookings Institution has held a series of
forums on America’s response to terrorism.42 The Cato Institute has held briefings
and provided policy suggestions on bioterrorism, with an emphasis on the debate
38 For more information on the Bio-Watch program, see CRS Report RL32152, The Bio-
Watch Program:Detection of Bioterrorism, by Dana A. Shea and Sarah A. Lister.
39 The National Academy of Science Committee on Science and Technology for Countering
Terrorism published its combined recommendations in book form. See National Research
Council, Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering
Terrorism, (Washington, DC: National Academies Press), 2002.
40 See Institute of Medicine, Preparing for the Psychological Consequences of Terrorism:
A Public Health Strategy, (Washington, DC: National Academies Press), 2003.
41 See National Research Council, Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism,
(Washington, DC: National Academies Press), 2004.
42 For more information on the Brookings Institution, see [http://www.brookings.org].
surrounding smallpox vaccination policy.43 The Heritage Foundation has held
briefings and provided policy suggestions on weapons of mass destruction.44
Potential Policy Options for the 109th Congress
Below are some policy options which may reduce the impact of a chemical,
biological, or toxin terrorist attack. These include preventing terrorist attacks by
increasing the difficulty of chemical, biological, and toxin weapon production;
developing countermeasures through directed public health funding’ reducing public
concern by enhancing public preparedness through outreach efforts; and addressing
how the media reports on acts of chemical, biological, and toxin terrorism.
Increasing Production Barriers
Barriers to chemical, biological, and toxin-related terrorism within the United
States may be strengthened by further legislation. One option to increase such
barriers would be to address the development and production of chemical, biological,
and toxin weapons. This might entail increasing the difficulty of obtaining these
weapons by decreasing the ease with which “dual-use” equipment is acquired, either
by regulating its domestic sale or through registering owners of such equipment,
through a mechanism similar to that for select agents. However, this may have an
adverse economic impact on those industries with legitimate need for this equipment,
such as the chemical, pharmaceutical, and health industries.45
Directed Public Health Funding
One suggestion would be to continue increased funding to the public health
system and law enforcement, in order to provide greater hospital capacity, trained
medical and mental health personnel, increased screening and surveillance, and
sufficient equipment in the case of a chemical, biological, or toxin terrorist attack.
It has been suggested that continued spending on the order of $10 to $30 billion per
year would provide sufficient depth of response to reduce a chemical, biological, or
toxin attack’s effectiveness.46 On the other hand, some contend that the risk of
terrorist attack is so small that money would be better spent on other safety programs,
such as highway safety.47
43 For more information on the Cato Institute, see [http://www.cato.org].
44 For more information on the Heritage Foundation, see [http://www.heritage.org].
45 For a discussion of regulating domestic dual-use biological equipment, see CRS Report
RS21422, Dual-Use Domestic Equipment: Difficulties in Domestic Regulation, by Dana A.
46 Greg Seigle, “Feds Could Make Bioterror ‘Impossible’, Expert Says,” Global Security
Newswire, April 9, 2002
47 Roger D. Congleton, “Terrorism, Interest-Group Politics, and Public Policy: Curtailing
Criminal Modes of Political Speech,” The Independent Review, Summer 2002.
Another option to address the threat of chemical, biological, and toxin weapons
is through the development of new antibiotic, antiviral, or antitoxin medicines.
While many agents of concern have an acknowledged treatment, many can be
improved to have higher efficacy. Alternately, further investment in new vaccines
or other methods to induce immunity might provide significant deterrence to terrorist
groups planning to use such a weapon. Critics of this approach have suggested that
developing treatments for specific agents does not lower the overall threat of
chemical, biological, or toxin attacks, but would rather force a terrorist to choose a
different agent. Some experts urge that new, broad-based methods to develop
resistance against a wide variety of agents must be developed.48
In the 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush announced a new
program designed to increase the availability of countermeasures against terror
agents. This program, called Project BioShield, would provide a government-
guaranteed market for manufacturers of countermeasures which lack broader
applicability.49 The Project Bioshield Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-276) was signed into
law on July 21, 2004. It provides expedited procedures for bioterrorism-related
procurement, hiring, and awarding of research grants, and authorizes the
appropriation of up to $5.593 billion total for FY2004 to FY2013 to purchase
countermeasures against terror agents. Project Bioshield appropriations of $5.593
billion total for FY2004 to FY2013 were provided in the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) Appropriations Act, 2004 (P.L. 108-90).
Reducing Public Concern
By addressing specific aspects of chemical, biological, and toxin weapons that
exacerbate public fears, the federal government may also decrease the usefulness of
these weapons to terrorists. The enhanced impact, relative to conventional weapons,
of chemical, biological, and toxin weapons might be decreased if the dread felt when
considering their effects could be reduced.50 If this enhanced impact could be
successfully reduced, there might be less advantage to using these weapons rather
than conventional weapons.
One possible approach for reducing the terror impact of these weapons is public
outreach to convey the likely risks and relative dangers chemical, biological, and
toxin weapons pose compared to other commonly encountered threats. Further
outreach by public health agencies, on either the state or federal level, providing
practical information regarding the emergency measures and treatments available in
48 This approach has been advocated by the chief scientist for Advanced Biosystems Inc.,
Dr. Ken Alibek, a bioweapons expert and former first deputy director of Biopreparat.
49 For more information on Project BioShield, see CRS Report RS21507, Project BioShield,
by Frank Gottron.
50 Some have suggested that the effects of a chemical or biological terrorist attack are
overstated and that consequently, the resulting panic may be worse than the threat itself.
Steve Connor, “Scientists Condemn Alarmist Official Propaganda Over Bioterrorism,” The
Independent, January 30, 2003.
the case of such an attack might further reduce public concerns that may exist.51
People facing potential chemical or biological weapon exposure might feel that they
had sufficient understanding prior to exposure, and therefore could make rational
choices regarding their situation. For example, treatment options and regimens might
already be known to victims, and those victims might feel greater control over events,
lessening their personal anxiety. As part of the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention’s efforts in bioterrorism preparedness, communication such as community
outreach and educational efforts are supported.
Some contend that open debate and flow of information regarding chemical and
biological terrorism threats lessens the terror aspects of these weapons.52 Advocates
of such information flow suggest that pre-event preparation and education will likely
reduce casualties and minimize anxiety or panic following an attack. On the other
hand, some have argued that an informational campaign, while decreasing the
psychological effect post-exposure, may increase general, day-to-day anxiety.53
These critics argue that information not presented in the proper context may be
counter-productive to attempts to reassure the public. For example, the efforts of the
Federal Civil Defense Administration campaign of public relations and educational
programs to prepare the population for the possibility of nuclear war in the 1950s
may have increased daily anxiety levels while preparing the population. Also, the
success of public outreach plans may be difficult to gauge. The Government
Accountability Office has recently reviewed several programs containing public
outreach components and highlighted the difficulties in assessing outreach
effect i v eness.54
The DHS began a public outreach campaign in February 2003, focusing on
civilian preparedness in the case of terrorist attack, including the use of weapons of
mass destruction.55 This campaign includes print and broadcast public-service
announcements, a website (www.ready.gov), and a toll-free advice number (1-800-
BE READY), as well as mailed information and billboards.56 The initial outreach
efforts of this campaign, called the “Ready Campaign,” included advice for preparing
homes in case of a chemical or biological attack. This advice, which included
suggested purchases of duct tape and plastic, garnered a mixed reception, with some
51 Brian Michael Jenkins, “All Citizens Now First Responders,” USA Today, March 24,
52 See, for example, What Should We Know? Whom Do We Tell? Chemical and Biological
Arms Control Institute, December, 2002, p. 15.
53 See, for example, William Booth, “Many Americans Worrying About Attack on
Homefront,” Washington Post, March 21, 2003, A28.
54 General Accounting Office, Program Evaluation: Strategies for Assessing How
Information Dissemination Contributes to Agency Goals, GAO-02-923, September 2002.
55 Other outreach campaign are being initiated at the state and city level. See “Health
Officials Begin Bioterrorism Awareness Campaign,” Associated Press, April 22, 2003.
56 Lynette Clemetson, “Reshaping Message On Terror, Ridge Urges Calm With Caution,”
The New York Times, February 20, 2003.
suggesting that other actions might have a higher priority57 and others being
dismissive of the advice provided.58 These efforts were criticized for heightening
anxiety and providing disaster information without context,59 and for presenting a
mixed message of higher public awareness coupled with suggestions that the public
should not take specific actions.60 Others, while acknowledging that a greater effort
to clearly present such advice might be required, maintained the value of such public
information dissemination.61 DHS, in cooperation with the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation and the Ad Council, have developed a series of television and print
advertisements, in addition to their other outreach efforts. The success of this
outreach program will be evaluated by the Ad Council through surveying public
response, but initial use of the website and toll-free number have been high.62 Other
privately funded studies have indicated that the outreach program had not provided
a clear conceptual message.63
The U.S. Department of Education has recommended to local school systems
that a crisis plan be developed in order to prepare for potential terrorist events,
including those using chemical or biological agents. The Department of Education
has published a guide to aid communities in developing their plan64 and, in
conjunction with DHS, has launched a new section of the Department of Education
website dedicated to providing a central location for school emergency planning.65
Some local school systems have developed “shelter-in-place” plans in case of large-
scale biological or chemical attack.66
57 John Mintz and Lyndsey Layton, “Officials: Safe Room Is Not No. 1 Priority,” The
Washington Post, February 23, 2003.
58 Michele McPhee and David Saltonstall, “Mike: Don’t Duct & Cover; Says New Yorkers
Shouldn’t Seal Up Homes,” New York Daily News, February 14, 2003.
59 Linda Feldman, “Beyond Duct Tape: Blind Fear Vs. Informed Planning,” Christian
Science Monitor, February 18, 2003.
60 David Clarke, “Letter From Nebraska Ave.: Stock Up On Water and Food, But Don’t
Worry,” Congressional Quarterly, February 10, 2003.
61 Stephanie Strom, “Beyond Duct Tape and Sheeting, An Unlikely Proponent,” The New
York Times, February 23, 2003.
62 Kellie Lunney, “Success of Homeland Security Ad Campaign Won’t Be Easy to
Measure,” GovExec.com, February 27, 2003.
63 “Americans Wary Of, But Not Prepared For, More Terror Attacks: Survey,” Agence
France Presse, April 18, 2003.
64 U.S. Department of Education, Practical Information On Crisis Planning; A Guide for
Schools and Communities, May 2003.
65 The Department of Education website relating to emergency preparedness is found online
at [http://www.ed.gov/emergencyplan/]. U.S. Department of Education, “Paige, Ridge
Unveil New Web Resource to Help Schools Plan for Emergencies,” Press Release, March
66 For an example, see David Cho, “Fairfax To Confine Students In Case Of Terrorist
Attack,” The Washington Post, January 29, 2003.
Voluntary Media Codes
Another proposal for lessening the impact of chemical, biological, and toxin
weapons’ terror aspect considers the presentation of information during a chemical,
biological, and toxin weapon event. By providing accurate, reliable information
during a terror event, public confidence may be bolstered, significantly reducing the
terror impact. Some media sources were criticized for presenting the public with
incorrect, contradictory, or incomplete information during the anthrax mailings.67
Some have voiced concern that the media reporting of events provides a confusing
mixture of opinion and fact, potentially misleading viewers as to their potential role.68
The combination of potentially faulty advice and varied expert opinion may have
confused the public about what the “right” actions to maximize safety were.69 The
National Academy of Sciences advocates developing a voluntary media code
regarding coverage of such attacks, to ensure accurate reporting,70 and other groups
also are exploring the role of media reporting and terrorism.71 Some editors
additionally advocate a more restrained approach to reporting on homeland security
and terrorism related news.72 In the 108th Congress, the House Select Committee on
Homeland Security held a hearing exploring the different approaches and efforts
developed by media organizations to provide a balance between protecting homeland
security and providing necessary information to the public.73
67 For example, advice on personal treatment of mail was alternately disputed or supported
by public health professionals and researchers. See J. Dorschner and P. Ogle, “Read This
Before Ironing Any Of Your Suspicious Letters,” The Miami Herald Sunday Gazette Mail,
October 21, 2001; D.H. Frazer, “Health Experts Warn Against Anthrax Advice,” Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel, October 20, 2001; and J. Zagars, “Just the Facts?” The Washington Post,
November 8, 2001.
68 David Clarke, “GOP Lawmaker Hits Bush On Local Homeland Aid,” CQ Homeland
Security, January 28, 2003.
69 For an illustrative view of the competing aspects of media coverage of terror related
events see The Brookings Institution, “The Role of the Press in the Anti-Terrorism
Campaign: The Anthrax Scare and Bioterrorism: Is the Coverage Informative or Needlessly
Frightening?”, Brookings/Harvard Forum, December 19, 2001, found online at
[http://www.brookings .edu/gs /res earch/proj ects/press/121901.htm] .
70 A precedent for voluntary development of media-controlled norms can be found in the
manner by which the media reports on child crime victims. See National Research Council,
Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism,
(Washington, DC: National Academies Press) 2002.
71 For example, the Radio and Television News Directors foundation has developed a media
guide for bioterrorism reporting to aid clear, accurate reporting. Radio and Television News
Directors Foundation, “Bioterrorism: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Bioterrorism,”
November 2002, found online at [http://www.rtndf.org/resources/bioterror.shtml].
72 For example, see Lori Robertson, “High Anxiety,” American Journalism Review, April
73 House Select Committee on Homeland Security Hearing on “Combating Terrorism: The
Role of Broadcast Media,” September 15, 2004.
In an effort to provide accurate and timely expert information, the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention has established a website providing information to
those interested in likely biological, chemical, and radiological weapons.74 In
addition to providing information for the general public, they also provide more
detailed information for public health, clinical, and laboratory workers. Some have
questioned what mechanism will be used to provide the public with authoritative,
official information after a biological or chemical attack.75 Policymakers may wish
to further review how to best disseminate information before, during, and after a
74 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Emergency Preparedness
and Response website can be found at [http://www.bt.cdc.gov].
75 Kenneth Chang and Judith Miller, “Duct Tape and Plastic Sheeting Provide Solace, If Not
Security,” The New York Times, February 13, 2003.
76 Similar consideration of the role of the media regarding terrorist events has been
undertaken by the Council of Europe. For more information, see the Media Division of the
Council of Europe’s Directorate General of Human Rights found online at
[ h t t p : / / www.c o e . i n t / me d i a / ] .