Combined Chlorine/IED Incidents

August Vernon and Steve Marks discuss response considerations needed when responding to a chemical chlorine attack.


Recent attacks in Iraq combining the use of explosives and chlorine have highlighted the fact that terrorists are constantly seeking more effective methods of attack. In the interest of public safety and current international trends, it is prudent for emergency responders to study these incidents...


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Recent attacks in Iraq combining the use of explosives and chlorine have highlighted the fact that terrorists are constantly seeking more effective methods of attack. In the interest of public safety and current international trends, it is prudent for emergency responders to study these incidents and develop effective public safety guidelines. Globally, terrorists are learning to adapt their tactics and techniques and there is a good chance that these tactics will be seen in other locales.

This article will address the use of a "combined device" specifically consisting of chlorine and improvised explosive device (IED). Combined devices have also been referred to as "chemical bombs" or "dirty bombs." Also, these devices could be assembled using a wide variety of hazardous materials. The IED component of a combined device can be anything from homemade pipe bombs to sophisticated military ordnance, but nonmilitary first responders are more likely to encounter IEDs than military weapons in their day-to-day response activities.

It is important to study the sometimes-fatal lessons learned from these events and apply them to our preparing the "homeland" for any future incidents. In Iraq, from January to April 2007, there were at least nine chlorine attacks leading to over 50 fatalities and more than 500 injuries, including those to U.S service members. The attacks took place primarily in the areas of Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi. Most of them utilized a suicide bomber to move the combined device to the point of detonation. The chlorine containers varied from large tankers to small containers that could be carried in the back of a pickup. It has been discussed that chlorine may have been used because it is present in large quantities in Iraq to deal with the country's poor water sanitation.

This method of attack has so far been an extremely crude means of delivery. It appears in the attacks a large proportion of the chemicals are consumed in the explosions itself. It is not an efficient means of dispersal, but the insurgents continue to experiment and improve their methods of attack and dispersal using the combined devices. The Iraqi government can try to limit access to chlorine, but a strong black market exists. The primary impact so far has been to cause widespread panic, with large numbers of civilians suffering non life-threatening, but very traumatic injuries. This combined-device attack also targets responders, making it difficult for them to respond to the scene. Numerous U.S. soldiers have reported the difficulty of trying to respond to and manage the incidents due to the chlorine.

Combined Devices
A possible combined device can be found during the response to an explosives response, answering a suspicious package/container call, or when conducting routine activities such as investigations and inspections. IEDs can be designed to be concealed or look like ordinary items. The exterior inspection of a suspected device does not ensure its safety:

  • Responders should always be very cautious of any item that arouses your curiosity.
  • Large or small containers with unknown liquids or materials.
  • Unusual devices or containers with electronic components such as wires, circuit boards, cellular phones, antennas and other items attached or exposed.
  • Devices containing quantities of fuses, fireworks, match heads, black powder, smokeless powder, incendiary materials or other unusual materials.
  • Materials attached to or surrounding an item such as nails, bolts, drill bits or marbles that could be used for shrapnel.
  • Ordnance such as blasting caps, military explosives, commercial explosives and grenades.
  • Any combination of the above items.

Chlorine
Chlorine is a greenish-yellow diatomic gas. It is normally shipped as a liquefied, compressed gas in 100- to 150-pound cylinders, ton cylinders and railroad cars. The vapor density of chlorine is 2.5, which means that it is considerably heavier than air and will travel along the ground and sink into low-lying areas. The expansion ratio for liquefied chlorine (liquid to vapor) is 450-500 to 1. This means that a small amount of liquefied chlorine, when released from its container, will produce a significant vapor cloud.

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