Bioterrorism FAQ

How real is the threat of bioterrorism?

We cannot know how likely it is that terrorists will use biological weapons against us and we have no evidence that Washington State is a target of bioterrorism. However, we do know that the technology to produce and use dangerous biological agents is potentially available to people who might be willing to use them. Because the consequences of such an attack could be severe, we need to be prepared to respond as quickly and effectively as possible.

What is being done about the threat of bioterrorism?

The best defense against bioterrorism is a strong public health system. In response to the threat of bioterrorism, Congress authorized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to coordinate efforts to upgrade national public health capability to counter bioterrorism. Following this mandate, the CDC established the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program in 1999. Under this program, Washington is developing the ability to detect, communicate and respond to potential bioterrorism events. Read more about the Washington State Department of Health's Office of Resiliency and Health Security.

What can I do to protect my family and myself?

Many of the same steps you would take to prepare yourself and your family for a natural disaster such as a flood or major storm would also be helpful in preparing for an incident of bioterrorism. For instance, making plans for getting in touch with family members after a disaster and preparing emergency kits for your home, work, and your children's school are simple things you can do. You should recognize, however, that some preparedness items or actions that could prove valuable in some emergency situations might not be useful in the special case of bioterrorism. Bioterrorism is different from terrorist attacks that involve explosives or chemicals.

You will find a helpful list of personal preparedness resources on our Preparedness and Response home page.

In each area, local health departments have an important responsibility for helping protect your community against outbreaks of infectious disease, whether they occur in nature or because of a terrorist act. They can assist you with additional bioterrorism-related concerns that are pertinent to your own community. View links to local health department websites.

Should I buy a gas mask?

No. Gas masks are largely ineffective against biological agents. In addition, a gas mask would only protect you if you were wearing it at the exact moment an attack occurred. Unfortunately, a release of a biological agent is most likely to be done "covertly," that is, without anyone knowing it. That means you would not know ahead of time to put on your mask. To work effectively, masks must be specially fitted to the wearer, and wearers must be trained in their use. Gas masks purchased at an Army surplus store or off the Internet carry no guarantees that they will work. More serious is the fact that the masks can be dangerous. Improper use can result in accidental suffocation.

Should I have disposable masks in my home emergency kit?

Again, a bioterrorist attack will likely be covert - so you will not know when to put on the mask. By the time the attack is recognized - days or even weeks after the release of the bioweapons agent - it is too late to don a mask. Paper masks offer little, if any, protection against chemical weapons.

More generally, there may be disaster situations in which it will be important to avoid breathing in dangerous substances. For example, an explosion may produce fine debris or toxic gases that can hurt your lungs. Wearing a simple mask in such situations may be helpful. Be prepared to improvise - use what you have on hand to create a barrier between the air and your mouth and nose.

There are different opinions as to what sorts of barriers work best and there are few solid facts. Anything that fits snugly over your nose and mouth, including any dense-weave cotton material, can help filter contaminants in an emergency. There are also a variety of facemasks readily available in hardware stores that are rated based on how small a particle they can filter in an industrial setting. For the moment, you have to decide what is best for you and your family.

It is very important that the mask or other material fit your face snugly so that most of the air you breathe comes through the mask, not around it. Do whatever you can to make the best fit possible for children. Simple cloth facemasks can filter some of the airborne particles or germs you might breathe into your body, but will probably not protect you from chemical gases. Still, something over your nose and mouth in an emergency is better than nothing.

If I buy disposable masks, what type should I buy?

There are many kinds of disposable masks. About N95 masks: these are a type of simple, inexpensive paper mask often mentioned in emergency preparedness literature. The filtering ability of the N95 mask - a measure of how much material can pass through the paper in laboratory tests - is quite high. N95 masks effectively protect against infection in hospital settings in which health care professionals have time to make sure the masks fit properly.

In the setting of civilian response to a bioterrorist attack, it is not clear than an N95 mask would be any more effective than other paper masks or provide more protection than a cotton undershirt wrapped around the nose and mouth. (Manufactured masks may, however be more comfortable and more convenient.)

The reason for this is that paper masks often fail to fit the face snugly, and a lot of air leaks in around the edges of any paper mask instead of getting filtered through the paper. This is why it is important to make sure that any mask you use or create fits snuggly around your face.

Should I keep a supply of antibiotics?

Antibiotics may be recommended in the event of a suspected bioterrorism event; however, there is no antibiotic that is effective against all diseases. No single pill can protect against all types of biological weapon attacks. It is important to note that if antibiotics are used inappropriately, or horded and saved for later, they may become ineffective. Antibiotics have a limited shelf life and may lose their strength, they may have side effects, and they should only be used under medical supervision. Most importantly, misuse of antibiotics can lead to drug resistance, which means the antibiotics will not be effective when needed. More information about antimicrobial resistance is available from the CDC.

During a bioterrorism attack, will sealing my home's windows with plastic and duct tape help protect me?

No. A release of a biological agent is most likely to be "covert" - that is, terrorists will not announce the attack before it happens or afterwards. This means you would not know ahead of time to seal your windows and prevent contaminated air from reaching you.

Duct tape and plastic sheeting can slow down air movement from outside to inside, but does not stop such movement. Be aware that using some non-electric space heaters inside such sealed off areas can lead to dangerous build up of carbon monoxide.

Where can I get more information?