Are You Prepared For a Chlorine Attack?

July 1, 2007
Whether Accidental or Intentional, a Chlorine Release Can Be Deadly

Do the following numbers about chlorine scare you? Some 300,000 miles of railroad tracks in the United States carry thousands of tons of highly toxic chlorine through every major city and town. Thirty-seven drinking water- and waste-treatment facilities in this country still receive chlorine gas by railroad car and 25 million people live near these facilities. One hundred sixty reported chlorine releases, mostly minor, from railroad cars have occurred since 1990. It is estimated that chlorine can travel up to 25 miles downwind from a single ruptured tank car on a windy day. According to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimate, 17,500 people would die and 100,000 people would be injured from this type of release.

What is chlorine? We are all familiar with the chlorine we put in our swimming pools, but at room temperature chlorine is a yellow-green gas that is heavier than air and has a strong irritating odor. It can be converted to a liquid under pressure or cold temperatures. Chlorine is mainly used as bleach in making paper, cloth and many other products.

Unlike nuclear materials, chlorine is easy to obtain and easy to transport, but difficult to trace. That is why counter-terrorism experts say recent events in Iraq may be practice runs for al-Qaida ambitions in the United States. On April 6, 2007, a suicide bomber smashed a truck loaded with TNT and chlorine gas into a police checkpoint in Ramadi, killing 27 people. On Feb. 20, a bomb planted on a chlorine tanker left more 150 people sick north of Baghdad. The next day, a pickup truck carrying chlorine gas cylinders was blown apart in Baghdad, killing five people and sending 55 to area hospitals. All told, as of this writing, there have been nine attacks in Iraq involving chlorine by those who authorities believe is al-Qaida.

Counter-terrorism experts strongly believe al-Qaida is merely conducting intelligence and fact finding about the use of chlorine as a weapon of mass destruction. The lessons terrorists are learning on the battlefields of Iraq may be used against us here in the United States. Some of the initial information being gained in Iraq is that most of the chlorine burns off with the detonation of explosives. Expect the terrorists to experiment with ways to release chlorine to produce the deadliest results.

Why should we be worried about chlorine? With low exposures of one to 10 parts per million, chlorine gas can cause sore throats, coughing, and eye and skin irritation. Exposure to moderate levels can cause burning of the eyes and skin, rapid breathing, wheezing and an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. Exposure to high levels of chlorine causes severe eye and skin burns, respiratory collapse and death. When chlorine mixes with the moisture in the lungs, it produces hydrochloric acid — the same acid found in your stomach to aid digestion.

Chlorine was first used as a weapon by the Germans in World War I in an effort to end the stalemate of trench warfare. On April 22, 1915, the Germans poured a heavy bombardment of shells into the French and Algerian lines. Sentries noticed a yellow-green cloud drifting slowly toward them. The French thought it was a smoke screen to mask a German advance, so commanders told their troops to stand fast and not move. As French and Algerian troops began feeling the effects of chlorine gas, their lungs became severely affected and many collapsed. As the troops began to flee, they left a four-mile gap in the lines. If the Germans had been prepared, they could have won a decisive battle. By the end of the war, both sides were using chlorine as a weapon. Because of international revulsion about their use, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned chemical weapons in war.

A more recent event involving chlorine in the United States showed how deadly the chemical can be. In January 2005, two freight trains rammed into each other in Graniteville, SC. Before authorities could identify that chlorine was the gas seeping out, nine people had died. Another 250 were treated at hospitals and 5,000 residents had to be evacuated.

Are we prepared if al-Qaida operatives explode tank cars loaded with chlorine on a windy day in a large metropolitan area? The problem will be protecting responding emergency personnel. There will not be enough Level A suits to rescue a large number of people. In the event of a spill or leak involving chlorine, fire department personnel not wearing protective equipment and fully encapsulating, vapor-protective clothing should be restricted from contaminated areas until cleanup has been completed.

For those who are able to escape, but have been contaminated, if chlorine has contacted the skin, rescue personnel should flush the affected areas immediately with plenty of water, followed by washing with soap and water. Gross decontamination can take place in many of these circumstances using engine and/or ladder companies with piped waterways. Clothing contaminated with chlorine should be removed immediately and provisions made for the safe removal of the chemical from the clothing.

More than five years after al-Qaida murdered 2,996 people in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, we need to be prepared for the next attack that will hit our shores. Hopefully, our government can prevent such an attack, but we need to be ready for whatever the terrorists throw at us, including chlorine.

GARY LUDWIG, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire-rescue service experience. Ludwig is chairman of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has a master's degree in business and management, and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at EMS and fire conferences nationally and internationally, and can be reached through his website at

3 Join NFPA Board

New members of the board of directors of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) were elected at the association's World Safety Conference & Exposition last month. The new members are John C. Dean of Winthrop, ME; Rebecca F. Denlinger of Marietta, GA; and Keith F. Williams of Northbrook, IL.

Dean is the state fire marshal of Maine. He also is president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), treasurer of the Maine Fire Protection Services Commission and a member of the Maine Fire Training & Education Advisory Board.

Denlinger is fire chief with the Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services. In 2004, President Bush appointed her to serve on the National Infrastructure Advisory Council. She is a member of the Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and represents the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs as a member of the Georgia Homeland Security Task Force.

Williams is president and CEO of Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) He also spent eight years with Medtronic and worked for more than 20 years for General Electric.

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