Better living through chemistry
It's 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside, yet the heat is becoming oppressive. Sweat runs down my back and legs. Under the quarter-inch- thick rubber gas mask, a bead of water drips down my face, cruelly tickling my skin. All the while, I know I can't scratch it or even rub my mask for fear of breaking the life-saving seal I spent half an hour constructing. I am, presumably, airtight and protected from the outside atmosphere in what amounts to a delicate balance among clean air, claustrophobia, and a potentially agonizing death.
Those two hours wearing a full chemical and biological warfare suit -- officially, my individual protective equipment (IPE) -- won't be forgotten soon, a point my instructor aims to make. The experience comes courtesy of Centurion Risk Assessment Services Ltd., the British outfit that has become known in U.S. newsrooms for training reporters heading off to hostile zones around the world. Centurion, and its competitor, the AKE Group in Hereford, England, have developed reputations for teaching conventional-warfare safety to journalists, offering only glancing looks at chemical and biological hazards.
No longer. Both of the for-profit companies have responded to customer demand (read: newsroom managers) for training in what many speculate might be a nightmare scenario -- a chemical or biological attack, especially in a U.S. war with Iraq.
And courses are filling up fast. I'm taking part in Centurion's new one-day Chemical Warfare Awareness Training course (AKE offers a two- day training class). Conducted 40 miles southwest of London, it drew eight British and American journalists, including two from large Texas newspapers and a national correspondent for a U.S. newspaper chain. Centurion and course participants prefer their identities not be revealed.
Unlike the hostile-environment courses, which are remarkably insightful, this training is frustrating, paradoxical, even ludicrous (albeit worthwhile). At one point, I felt that what our instructor really wanted to say was, "Look, you don't really need to know this because if you're attacked, you're likely dead."
The contradictions are driven home from the start by our affable host, Paul, who airs a chilling 1984 video of a western TV camera crew somewhere in Iran. We watch as a group of Iranian soldiers, partially clad in chemical-warfare gear, dig up an unexploded Iraqi artillery shell, unscrew the cap at its head, and pour out a yellow-brown substance: mustard gas. Later, the crew's sound man, standing 20 feet away and not wearing proper IPE, as well as several Iranians, develop severe blisters.
The footage is great, the safety precautions chillingly inadequate. Paul's point: exposure can be innocuous and strike with stunning quickness and effectiveness. A "safe" distance, Paul said, "is measured in miles, not feet."
Biochemical-warfare training begins with a nearly incomprehensible laundry list of deadly agents: a mix of unique symptoms, smells, detection methods, treatment. Chemical agents, the most likely battlefield weapons, are categorized as nerve (quick-acting, odorless), choking (colorless gas or liquid, smells like hay or green grass), blister (delayed-reaction, inflammation, then skin or lung destruction), or blood (smells like bitter almonds, your heart may explode, death in minutes).
Irritated eyes, gasping, or unconsciousness may mean a blood agent. Yet irritated eyes and severe choking is likely caused by a choking agent. Each has a different reaction time and a tiny treatment window. Atropine can combat nerve-agent exposure. …