How to Save Your Life: Bio or Chemical Attack

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Dr. Lynn Davis






FOX Fan Question: I am worried that it will be impossible to get medical treatment if we are attacked due to long lines or antidote shortages etc. Is there anything I can keep at home?

Dr. Davis: Our federal government’s Center for Disease Control, in connection with state and local governments, has developed procedures for quickly distributing supplies of smallpox vaccines, antibiotics, and other medical supplies. Because the medical treatment needs to be tailored to the specific type of biological agent in the attack, we do not recommend stockpiling ones own medicines. Rather our strategy calls for individuals to understand what might be needed, follow the guidance of public health officials, and to talk in advance to medical professionals about what types of treatment might be appropriate for themselves. 

FOX Fan Question: Are there pills I can take that will save my life?

Dr. Davis: The most important thing for you and I as individuals to do to prepare for terrorist attacks involving chemical or biological weapons, is to understand what might happen—the situations you might find yourself in—and then what steps to take. These are described in the individual’s strategy that we recommend. Once a biological attack is identified, then follow the guidelines from public health officials as to what medical treatment is appropriate.

FOX Fan Question: Will gas masks really protect me, and should everyone get one?

Dr. Davis: Since you and I are unlikely to know when an attack will occur, gas masks would only be effective in either a biological or chemical attack IF you were wearing them all the time—and this is impractical. We recommend other steps in our individual’s strategy for protecting against such attacks.

FOX Fan Question: I want to be able to know what to do based on the symptoms I see on my body. How can I learn more about this?

Dr. Davis: You can start with RAND’s Quick Guide ( and then find other sources of information by going to the Department of Homeland Security ( and the Red Cross.

FOX Fan Question: I'd imagine getting out of the city would be impossible if we are attacked. So where is the safest place to go?

Dr. Davis: What we learned from looking at the effects of the different types of terrorist attacks—chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear—is that the steps you should take need to be tailored to each type of attack. So evacuation out of a building is appropriate, for example, if a chemical attack occurs inside. In none of these cases are we recommending a quick evacuation out of a city—though over time it may be necessary for individuals to leave areas contaminated by anthrax or a dirty bomb.

FOX Fan Question: Is there any way I can protect myself on the train or subway since I will not have access to fresh air in the case someone unleashes a deadly agent?

Dr. Davis: Our recommended strategy involves steps that you and I, as individuals would take, wherever we find ourselves—at home, at work, in a train or subway. In a biological attack, it will not matter where you are, for it is unlikely to be identified until days after the danger has arisen. In a chemical attack, your goal is to find clean air. So, for example, if the attack is down in the subway, move quickly outside.

Dr. Lynn Davis is a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, and author of "Individual Preparedness and Response to Chemical, Radiological, Nuclear, and Biological Terrorist Attacks: A Quick Guide."