Emergency Preparedness Essentials


Biological Threats and Hazards

Biological agents are harmful toxins which can harm or even kill people, animals, and plants. Terrorists use these substances for biological attacks on others.

Bacteria, viruses, and toxins are the three biological agents used most often as weapons. Biological agents are usually tricky to grow. Anthrax spores are one of the few that will live for a long time; most break down quickly if they become exposed to the environment. These toxins can be dispersed in three ways: (1) being sprayed in the air, (2) by contaminating food and water, and (3) by infecting any animals that could infect humans. Here are the delivery methods:
  • Aerosols – toxins can become spread out in the air and drift as a mist for long stretches of land. When this mist is inhaled it can cause disease.
  • Animals –diseases can be spread by animals and insects to other animals or people.
  • Food and water contamination –toxins can get into a food or water supply. However, most of these microbes can be killed by cooking the food and/or by boiling the water. These microbes must be boiled for at least one minute in order to be killed but it may require a longer space of time so be sure to always follow instructions.
  • Person-to-person – it is possible to get infected from people. There are several cases, such as smallpox or the plague, where people have been the source of infection.

What to Do Before a Biological Threat

Biological attacks are usually not immediately apparent. The local health care professionals will usually be the ones to report an unusual illness or the potential threat of a toxin. Another sign may be the increases of people going to the emergency room with the same symptoms. It is mostly likely that the threat will be announced through an emergency radio or emergency TV broadcast. There are other signs that your community may give you such as a telephone call or a visit from an emergency response worker.

In order to protect yourself and your family from a biological threat, do the following things:
  • You will need to create an Emergency Supply Kit, which will include non-perishable food, flashlights as well as batteries, water, and a hand-crank or battery-powered radio.
  • Create a Family Emergency Plan. Because you and your family might not be in the same place during an emergency it is important to have a plan for how you will find each other if the time comes.
    • Know and understand your disaster plans and warning systems that are in place in your community.
    • An out-of-town contact might be more easily able to help separated family members communicate because placing a call in town may be difficult.
    • It is smart to look into emergency plans in places where you and your family spend time such as school or daycare or work. If any of these places do not currently have an emergency plan you may want to consider helping to create one.
    • Establish a place both inside and outside your neighborhood where your family will meet.
    • Make sure that any babysitters or caregivers know of your family’s plans.
    • Don’t forget about your pets.
  • Make sure that immunizations are up to date. Young children or older adults are the most vulnerable to biological agents so make sure that you have checked with your doctor that all have the recommended immunizations.
  • You may also want to consider placing a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter for your air duct. These filters will be able to remove a range of biological agents from entering your house. However, a stand-alone HEPA may be all that is needed if you don’t have central heating or cooling.
Building Filtration

It is important for the building manager or owner to determine the level and the type of filtration their structures have as well as the protection level it has in order to be prepared for biological attacks. For more information on this topic look to Guidance for Filtration and Air-Cleaning Systems to Protect Building Environments from Airborne Chemical, Biological, or Radiological Attacks from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH.) You can get a copy by calling 1 (800) 35NIOSH or by visiting the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Web site. You will want to download NIOSH Publication 2003-136.

How to Use HEPA Filters

In the case of biological attacks, HEPA filters can be very useful. Because air movement through the filter in the house will help with the removal of agents in the air, it is important to keep your HEPA filter running or with the fan on (if your home has central heating/cooling.) If your HEPA filter is portable make sure it is on in the room with you.

An office or apartment building with a central heating/cooling system with a filtration system should provide some protection from outside biological threats.

It is important to note that chemical agents can’t be filtered by HEPA filters.

What do Do During a Biological Threat

Symptoms of the disease due to exposure of a biological agent are usually the first signs of an attack. Be sure to follow these guidelines if a biological threat occurs:
  • Public health officials are not always immediately able to guide the public on the course of action they should take during a biological attack. The illness, its treatment, and who is in danger of it will take time to comprehend. Information about the symptoms, dangerous areas, medication and vaccination availability, etc. may be available through TV, radio, internet, news, etc. so it is important that you check often so you will know where to go and what to do should you become ill.
  • Stay away from any unusual or suspicious substances.
  • Use fabric as a filter to protect yourself. Any fabric that you can breathe through but will filter biological agents in the air will work.
  • To prevent becoming sick or spreading the sickness to others, it is a good idea to wear a mask.
  • In the event of exposure to a toxin, remove and bag your clothes. You will need to follow official instructions in how to dispose of these things.
  • Be sure to cleanse with soap and water and put on fresh clothes.
  • Seek out medical assistance and authorities. You may need to be quarantined or simply advised to stay away from people.
  • Be alert and aware if a family member falls ill.
  • Because common sicknesses sometimes share symptoms of toxins, do not feel like you need to immediately rush to the emergency room. Every illness is not necessarily caused by a biological attack.
  • To avoid spreading germs use good hygiene, common sense, and seek medical advice when needed.
  • Be aware of the population authorities consider to be in danger and determine if you are in that group.
  • It is important to seek immediate medical attention if you are both in the group at risk and your symptoms match those that are described.
  • Be sure to follow what is outlined by doctors and public health officials.
  • Medical treatment and evaluations will most likely be done if the disease is thought to be contagious. Again, you may be quarantined or advised to stay away from people.
  • Medical evaluation and treatment should also be expected for non-contagious diseases.
  • There is probably good cause to stay away from crowds that could be infected during a developing epidemic or declared biological emergency.
Cover Your Mouth and Nose

Try to use things that can fit snugly over your mouth and your nose to help filter contaminants. You may have to improvise to protect your mouth, nose, eyes, skin, etc. You will need to breathe through the cloth, not around it. Do the best you can in getting the best possible fit for children. There are masks available in hardware stores that can be used and chosen based on how much they can filter through. The simple cloth masks will be able to filter airborne agents but will be unable to protect you from any chemical gasses.

Symptoms of Contamination and Appropriate Hygiene

If anyone in your family or you're living with develops any of the following symptoms, separate them from any one else so that they don't spread what they've contracted. Symptoms biological contamination may include a temperature over 100 degrees, severe stomachache, vomiting, nausea, headache, red or pink eyes, skin irritation or infection, cough, earache, runny nose, pale skin, sore throat, loss of energy or appetite.

If you're treating someone that is sick, make sure to always wash your hands, cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, use a protective face mask if possible, and make sure the sick individual also wears a face mask.

What to Do After a Biological Threat

People are alerted to expose in some cases but not all. If people are alerted, such as was the case with the anthrax letters in 2001, pay close attention to the instructions and official warnings. Increased demand on medical services may cause the delivery to be handled differently than expected. Though basic health procedures and other protocols for dealing with exposure to toxins may be the same as for any other infectious disease, it is important to follow official instructions from emergency alert systems or TV or radio.


In order for antibiotics to be effective in treating diseases that come from biological weapons, the specific drug needs to match the created illness. All antibiotics are not able to treat all things. Serious reactions and side effects can be caused by antibiotics. Speak to your family doctor in advance so you will know what will be the best for your family.

For more information on biological threats you can download Biological Attack Fact Sheet: Human Pathogens, Biotoxins, and Agricultural Threat at /.

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