Biological Terrorist Agents Part I – Bacterial Agents

In January 2002, anthrax was covered in detail in the Hazmat Studies column. This column will cover other potential biological agents that could be used by terrorists. Biological terrorist agents are microorganisms or toxins derived from living...


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In January 2002, anthrax was covered in detail in the Hazmat Studies column. This column will cover other potential biological agents that could be used by terrorists.

Biological terrorist agents are microorganisms or toxins derived from living organisms to produce death or disease in humans, animals or plants. Both good and bad bacteria are present in the environment and living organisms. The bad bacteria are referred to as pathogens, because they can cause death to a living organism. Pathogens, or disease-causing microorganisms, are classified as 6.2 Infectious Substances under the United Nations/U.S. Department of Transportation (UN/DOT) hazard class system. Toxins, which are poisons produced by microorganisms or plants, are classified as 6.1 Poisons.

Biological warfare agents have often been referred to as the "poor man's atom bomb" because these agents are cheap, easy to obtain and in many cases can be manufactured without detection. Use of biological weapons produces a dramatic impact; they can penetrate fortifications; have delayed effects; and produce a large number of sick and dead. Biological agents are the ideal terrorist agent, they can be highly infectious, viable and stable, easy to conceal and transport, and withstand dissemination.

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Photo by Robert Burke
If the presence of a bacterial agent has been confirmed, proper chemical protective clothing should be worn by firefighters and other emergency responders.

Potential areas affected by biological agent dissemination maybe large, due to the migration of infected individuals. Biological agents are among the deadliest substances known to man and if properly disseminated, they can kill hundreds of thousands of people. Biological agents can be subdivided into several related groups. These include viruses, bacteria and rickettsia, and toxins. Bacteria and rickettsia are single-celled microscopic organisms that can cause disease in plants, animals and humans. Diseases caused by bacteria include anthrax, botulism, plague, cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, typhus, Legionnaire's disease, Lyme disease and strep infections.

  • Viruses. Viruses are very small, submicroscopic organisms, smaller than bacteria and are unable to live on their own. They must invade the host cell and make use of its reproductive mechanism to multiply.

  • Bacteria. From 300,000 to 1 million different types of bacteria exist on the earth. The majority of common bacteria are neither pathogenic nor parasitic. Nearly all live and thrive in nature. Some, however, have mutated and learned to invade other cells and cause disease.

  • Rickettsia. Rickettsia are pleomorphic (are present in many varying sizes) parasitic microorganisms that live in the cells of the intestines of arthropods (invertebrate animals) such as insects, spiders and crabs that have segmented bodies and jointed limbs. Some are pathogenic to humans and other mammals, where they are known to cause the typhus group of fevers. Rickettsia are smaller than bacteria, but larger than viruses. Like viruses, rickettsia are obligate (they cannot exist on their own or in any other form) and they are considered intracellular parasites.

  • Toxins. Toxins are poisons produced by living organisms including plants, bacteria, and animals. They would be classified as 6.1 poisons rather than 6.2 infectious substances because they are toxic materials rather than disease-causing agents.

Bacteria are single-celled organisms that may range in shape and size from cocci (spherical cells) with a diameter of 0.5 to 1 micrometer (m) to long, rod-shaped organisms - bacilli - that may be 1-5 m in size.

Bacteria have two methods by which they can cause disease in humans and animals. The first is by attacking the tissues of the host living thing. Secondly, all living organisms produce waste. Bacteria may produce a toxic or poisonous waste material that causes disease in the host. Some bacteria may attack using both methods.

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