Civilian populations are at risk from exposure to toxic materials as a result of accidental or deliberate exposure. In addition to industrial hazards, toxic agents designed for use in warfare now are a potential hazard in everyday life through terrorist action. Civil emergency medical responders should be able to adapt their plans for dealing with casualties from hazardous materials (HazMat) to deal with the new threat.
Chemical and biological warfare (CBW) and HazMat agents can be viewed as a continuous spectrum. Each of these hazards is characterized by qualities of toxicity, latency of action, persistency, and transmissibility. The incident and medical responses to release of any agent is determined by these characteristics.
Chemical and biological wardare agents usually are classified as weapons of mass destruction, but strictly, they are agents of mass injury. The relationship between mass injury and major loss of life depends very much on the protection, organization, and emergency care provided.
Detection of a civil toxic agent release where signs and symptoms in casualties may be the first indicator of exposure is different from the military situation where intelligence information and tuned detection systems generally will be available.
It is important that emergency medical care should be given in the context of a specific action plan. Within an organized and protected perimeter, triage and decontamination (if the agent is persistent) can proceed while emergency medical care is provided at the same time.
The provision of advanced life support (TOXALS) in this zone by protected and trained medical responders now is technically feasible using specially designed ventilation equipment. Leaving life support until after decontamination may have fatal consequences. Casualties from terrorist attacks also may suffer physical as well as toxic trauma and the medical response also should be capable of dealing with mixed injuries.