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Epidemiologic clues suggesting a covert chemical release.

Epidemiologic clues that might suggest the covert release of a chemical agent include 1) an unusual increase in the number of patients seeking care for potential chemical-release-related illness; 2) unexplained deaths among young or healthy persons; 3) emission of unexplained odors by patients; 4) clusters of illness in persons who have common characteristics, such as drinking water from the same source; 5) rapid onset of symptoms after an exposure to a potentially contaminated medium (e.g., paresthesias and vomiting within minutes of eating a meal); 6) unexplained death of plants, fish, or animals (domestic or wild); and 7) a syndrome (i.e., a constellation of clinical signs and symptoms in patients) suggesting a disease associated commonly with a known chemical exposure (e.g., neurologic signs or pinpoint pupils in eyes of patients with a gastroenteritis-like syndrome or acidosis in patients with altered mental status).

Various chemical agents could be used as covert weapons, and the actual clinical syndrome will vary depending on the type of agent, the amount and concentration of the chemical, and the route of the exposure. However, certain clinical presentations might be more common with a covert chemical release. Certain syndromes are associated with groups of chemical agents with similar toxic properties that have been used previously, have high toxicity, or are easily available (Table) (4-10).

Reported by: M Patel, MD, J Schier, MD, M Belson, MD, C Rubin, DVM, P Garbe, DVM, Dir of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects; J Osterloh, MD, Dir of Laboratory Sciences, National Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

Editorial Note: Health-care providers, public health agencies, and poison control centers might be the first to recognize illness, treat patients, and implement the appropriate emergency response to a chemical release. Familiarity with general characteristics of a covert chemical release and recognition of epidemiologic clues and syndromic presentations of chemical agent exposures could improve recognition of these releases and might reduce further morbidity and mortality.

Public health agencies and health-care providers might render the most appropriate, timely, and clinically relevant treatment possible by using treatment modalities based on syndromic categories (e.g., burns, respiratory depression, neurologic damage, and shock). Treating exposed persons by clinical syndrome rather than by specific agent probably is the most pragmatic approach to the treatment of illness caused by chemical exposures.

State and local health departments should educate healthcare providers to recognize unusual illnesses that might indicate release of a chemical agent. Strategies for responding to intentional chemical releases include 1) providing information or reminders to health-care providers and clinical laboratories; 2) encouraging reporting of acute poisonings to local poison control centers, which can guide patient management and facilitate notification of the proper health agencies, and to the local or state health department; 3) initiating surveillance for incidents that potentially involve the covert release of a chemical agent; 4) implementing the capacity to receive and investigate any report of such an event; 5) implementing appropriate protocols, including potentially accessing the Laboratory Response Network for Biotertorism, to collect and transport specimens and to store them appropriately before laboratory analysis; 6) reporting immediately to CDC and local law enforcement if the results of an investigation suggest the intentional release of a chemical agent; and 7) requesting CDC assistance when necessary.

To begin developing national surveillance capabilities for detecting chemical-release-related illnesses, CDC is collaborating with the American Association of Poison Control Centers to use its Toxic Exposure Surveillance System to identify index cases, evolving patterns, or emerging clusters of hazardous exposures. Identification of early markers for chemical releases (e.g., characteristic symptom complexes, temporal and regional increases in hospitalizations, or sudden increases in case frequency or severity) will enable public health authorities to respond quickly and appropriately to an intentional chemical release.

CDC materials for emergency and health-care personnel, including a list of chemical agents and biologic toxins and their expected clinical syndromes, are available at http:// Additional information about responding to chemical attacks is available from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at http://, and CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at mhmi.html.


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Author:Patel, M; Schier, J; Belson, M; Rubin, C; Garbe, P; Osterloh, J
Publication:Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 3, 2003
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