Commercially available detection equipment should allow first responders, whether they be police, fire, hazmat, military or EMS units, to detect the presence or absence of chemical or biological threats. Today’s equipment is available, reasonably priced, and will detect a wide array of chemical agents. It’s taken us over 10,000 years to get here!
GAS… FROM CHAOS
One of the challenges early chemists faced was the identification of chemicals. Often the same chemical or gas would be identified differently when produced by different means. In the 16th century, Johann Baptista van Helmont began to identify various gases given off by different processes like combustion, fermentation, and the heating of organic matter. While studying the chemistry of air, he shattered so many containers while generating gases from various chemical reactions that he coined the term ‘gas’ from the Greek word, chaos.
Nine years after the Great War, changes were noted in the wavelength of light when a beam of light traverses a dustfree, transparent sample of a chemical compound. A small fraction of the light emerges in directions other than that of the incident (incoming) beam.
Raman spectroscopy was discovered in India by Dr. Raman, who later won the Nobel Prize. However, because the intensity of the scattered light is very weak, there was no practical light source for his Raman spectroscopy until the invention of the laser in the 1960s.
Testing and detection methods continued in the US. Rollins Edwards was one of 60,000 enlisted soldiers enrolled in a once-secret government programme (formally declassified in 1993) to test mustard gas and other chemical agents on American troops. As an African-American, Edwards was used for the programme to assess the effect of gases on black skin.
While the chemical was inefficiently released in the Tokyo sarin attacks in December 1995, they were an excellent example of the type of incident expected from chemical terrorism. The Salisbury Novichok incident was first recognised because a medic suspected nerve agent poisoning due to the visual signs. The first identification made in Tokyo was inaccurate, and it was not until three hours post-incident that accurate detection of sarin was made and the information disseminated.
Emergency responders must have accurate and timely detection information or the ability to detect and identify a threat at the time of their response. For medical personnel, detection equipment may include rapid, minimally invasive or non-invasive clinical assays for various chemical agents or for the effects of the chemical agents, that is, cholinesterase inhibition. Without this ability, more individuals may be exposed, including emergency response and hospital personnel attempting to care for casualties. Detection will be an essential part of both medical crisis and consequence management.
Current R&D in chemical agent detector technology is focused on integrating into a common operating picture, increasing the speed and sensitivity of the instruments, and bringing down their size and cost. The vast majority of next-generation chemical detectors are based on the application of the technology. In some cases, improvement requires utilisation of multiple technologies to increase simultaneously the sensitivity and specificity of the instrument.
A good example of a modern capability is 908 Devices’ MX908 — a handheld high-pressure mass spectrometer used for detection and identification of priority chemical threats, such as Novichoks and highly toxic fentanyl compounds.
“Ongoing updates and their threat classification capability help ensure the device keeps pace as the threat landscape continues to evolve.”
GARY HESS, CEO, DEFENSE EQUIPMENT COMPANY (DEC)
For very specific field testing of chemicals, laser-based Raman spectroscopy has proved to be one of the most convenient analytical techniques. Advantages compared to other handheld instrumentation include no or minimal sample preparation. Analysis of most materials takes less than a minute or just seconds. The instrument does not need to make physical contact with the substance being analysed.
A 785 nano meter laser system like Field Forensic’s HandyRam II can see through clear glass and plastic bags. HandyRam II also has explosives, narcotics and many other detection libraries available.
Training for reality
When it comes to training responders in detection, are many hazmat teams still using simulant or live agents to train? Or cellphone-simulated detection messages, an age-old tap-on-the-shoulder method? The importance of safely engaging students is critical, but so too is ‘training for reality.’
In an effort to be out there training safer and smarter, US company HazSim has engineered a system that is easy to use and offers unlimited training scenarios. These handhelds are rugged, realistic, and easy to read. The instructor servers offer a seamless interface with fully customisable options, and the easy-to-follow set-up instructions allow for a smooth training every time. The HazSim Pro 2.0 has intuitive and scalable new features for growing teams and critical thinking is encouraged without fear of negative real-life consequences.
The equipment needs of early civilian responders to a domestic incident in which chemical or biological weapons may have been used are also different from those of military personnel – who have the advantage of intelligence information that enables the equipment users to predict a probable threat agent and its likely area of impact.
For first responders to a domestic terrorist incident, however, there are currently no such benefits of intelligence. Without that knowledge, first responders will be unlikely to use CWA-specific detection equipment immediately.
The advances that will be of greatest benefit to the first-responding team will be increased portability, greater ease of use, and increased reliability of the detector technology. Detection and identification of the CWA is critical for legal and forensic purposes and for minimising the transfer of contamination to unprotected personnel. However, detection and identification of the agent must not be the primary goal of the early response units. Rather, it must be seen only as an aid to them in providing rapid and appropriate medical services to the victims of the incident. zy
Kevin Cresswell is former law enforcement and UK military and as a consultant based in Los Angeles, supports the companies Defense Equipment Company (DEC), HazSim and ADS Inc.
On 6 May 1953, 20-year-old British soldier Ronald Maddison agreed to participate in a medical experiment at the Porton Down military research facility, to assist in the detection and treatment of agents. What a package he was offered: a three-day pass and 15 shillings, which he decided to use to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend. Sounded too good to be true – and it was.
Some 200 milligrams of pure sarin on a piece of flannel was attached to Maddison’s left forearm. Within half an hour the volunteer was drenched in sweat and had lost his hearing; he then fell unconscious. At this point scientists injected him with atropine.
The ambulance driver described the symptoms, “I saw his leg rise up from the bed and I saw his skin begin turning blue. It started from the ankle and started spreading up his leg. It was like watching somebody pouring a blue liquid into a glass, it just began filling up.”
Maddison soon stopped breathing and was pronounced dead. Officials at the highest levels rushed to cover up the death and the inquest held in-camera on grounds of national security.
The HazSim 2 is a patented system providing first responders and hazmat workers with hands-on, interactive, real-time simulations.