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Chemical Attack

What Would Happen If a Chemical Attack Struck London

An expert assesses the likelihood of a gas attack in the capital, and what the potential fallout would be.

Image courtesy of the United States Navy via Wikipedia.

It's hard to properly comprehend the abject horror of a chemical attack. Even in the internet age, in which images of humanity's greatest cruelties are available at the click of a button, the photos emerging from Syria of gas victims are truly shocking. In the past, experts have said that the likelihood of such an UK is low, but still a possibility.


Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a writer and director of Medics Under Fire and UOSSM. He is also an expert in chemical weapons, their usage in modern warfare and their consequences. I spoke to him about what would happen if a chemical attack was to strike London.

VICE: Hi Hamish. Firstly, how likely is it that a chemical attack will occur on home soil?
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon: There is a lot of usage out there, particularly by jihadists in Syria and Iraq, and that is proving very effective. The threat to the UK is, I think, predominantly from jihadists, or lone wolves inspired by jihadists, or even returning jihadists. There is a small threat from other groups or other lone wolves, but I don't think that is significant. What we do know about the jihadists is that they have a comprehensive chemical weapons programme. They've found it very successful to use chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, and there is certainly a reasonable level of evidence that they tend to use these asymmetric weapons elsewhere.

I think the concern with the UK is that the preferred method of attack from the jihadists is what we call the active shooter – in other words, shootings or stabbings, or like the event we saw in Westminster a few weeks ago, using some sort of vehicle as a weapon. That is incredibly difficult now, and getting more difficult for jihadists to do, therefore they're looking at different ways to attack. Why they favour chemical weapons so much is the psychological impact it has.


When you put all that together, there is certainly a threat to the UK from chemical weapons. The jihadists basically use toxic industrial chemicals that are readily available in the UK – things like chlorine and ammonia. It is entirely likely that jihadists would try and attack the UK with chemical weapons. However, the authorities and the security services are very aware of this, and whether it would be successful – I think that is very much up to debate.

What's the difference between the psychological effect of a chemical attack and that of the "active shooter"?
I've been in and out of Syria quite a lot over the past few years, and people there are more fearful of chemical attacks than barrel-bomb attacks. They said, "Hamish, you can hide from bullets and bombs, but you can't hide from gas." I think it's the hopelessness with gas. Unless you have a gas mask, which is really the most fundamental protection you need, there's no way you can avoid it. A lot of what I do in Syria and Iraq is try and take those bits out of it. Toxic natural chemicals like chlorine – which aren't very toxic in relation to chemical warfare agents – are usually pretty visible. Chlorine gas is green and yellow. We simply teach people in Syria and Iraq to get the hell out of the way. However, you could imagine that if somebody set off some chlorine gas on, say, the underground, the panic that would ensue.


If someone was to attack London with a chemical weapon, how would it be administered?
Well, it's a tricky thing. I think one thing to keep in mind is that a mass chemical attack is not going to happen in London. You need aircrafts dropping 500kg bombs, and the jihadists don't have that capability. What they will have is five or ten-litre chlorine cylinders in a backpack.

What would be the likely target?
I think places where there are lots of people is probably what the terrorists would look for – sporting events, that sort of thing. I've been doing a bit of work in the US with various police and security agencies there, and one of their concerns is a drone flown into a sports event with maybe five litres of chlorine or something similar. If that went off, it would only injure one or two people, but you could imagine one or two people perhaps dying or becoming seriously ill in a stadium full of 80,000 people.

When it comes to nerve agents, I think a good example is the assassination in Kuala Lumpur recently of Kim Jong-nam by the North Koreans using a drop of nerve agent VX. You can imagine the impact that, say, a litre of VX would have if the size of a pinhead is enough to kill one person. A litre is potentially enough to kill a whole lot, and very quickly too.

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Do you know what the actual response from the emergency services and the government would be in the case of an attack like this?
Well, they've certainly rehearsed and practised this, and it's a sort of multi-agency response. The police have a specialist organisation based in London to deal with these sort of things; the fire brigade are responsible for decontaminations; and the ambulance services are responsible for collecting casualties and taking them to various hospitals. There is a very comprehensive response amongst the emergency services. The variable in this, of course, is the population. It's not so much what the emergency services do, it's what the population does, and I think that's the concern of all of us. [Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade] Dany Cotton and others have said this because, during the Cold War, everyone knew what they were supposed to do and where they were supposed to be if there was a nuclear attack, but we've only just recently reassessed what to do in a terrorist event.


Surprisingly, that advice did not include what to do in a chemical attack. If you go to the Singapore government website, they have a similar sort of booklet that they issue and, there are about ten pages on what to do in the event of a chemical attack, like when to disperse, where you go to be looked at, make sure you're in the open air, etc. So that's a slight concern, and I think probably something that we should do. We know what the emergency services would do, but the variable is the public and, of course, in London there are millions of them. If they react as one would expect them to react, with the panic that would ensue from this psychological attack, then we're in trouble.

What are the physical affects of chlorine or nerve gas? What's happening to people if they're inhaling or coming into contact with these agents?
Chlorine is what we call a choking agent. It's not really a contact hazard. At the end of the day, it's highly-concentrated bleach. If you get it on your skin it's not going to kill you, but if you breathe it in, it reacts with the mucus in your lungs and burns your lungs. The reason so many children die is that their lungs are very susceptible to this sort of thing. When you're an adult your lungs are a bit more robust – you could take in a good two or three lungfuls of chlorine gas and it's not going to kill you, but for a child it probably would. The nerve agents Sarin and VX are chemical warfare agents – they destroy your nerves, and without your nerves your main bodily functions shut down. So your heart shuts down, your breathing shuts down and you're killed very quickly. It is a horrific way to die.


The third agent that some jihadists have been using is mustard agent – mustard gas, if you like. It's not really a gas; it's actually a liquid, and that's what we call a blister agent. You might see pictures of people with massive blisters. In military terms, that's an "incapacitant". It won't kill you. but it will make you a casualty and you'll have to be looked after. However, if you breathe the mustard agent in it has the same effect on your lungs and destroys your lungs.

It's all pretty fucking terrifying.
Well, yes. The one thing I would say, however, is it might be terrifying, but we're all looking out for this to be instigated and, you know, if you walked onto the tube with what might appear to be a 5kg or 10kg cylinder of chlorine, I'd be pretty confident you'd be picked up. One of the big concerns is outside London. London and Manchester and probably Glasgow are very resilient to these sort of things, whereas Hartlepool or Salisbury or Bath probably aren't. So that would be the concern rather than London. Although it's frightening, people are trying to mitigate this and our security services are probably the best in the world, which makes it slightly less likely. I'd be more concerned if I lived on mainland Europe. France is a much bigger target than we are.

Thanks, Hamish.


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