I'm a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Operations Specialist (CBRN) in the United States Army - so when I say chemicals are my job, I mean it. Most of the chemicals the Army deals with are Mop-n-Glo and Windex ("Ain't no clean like Army clean")... but the kind I deal with will really ruin someone's day.
You don't need to attend a chemical weapons convention to learn the things you'll need to know in order to survive a chemical attack. However, you do need to know what kinds of dangers are possible and what you can do to increase your chances of living to tell about it.
Please bear in mind that a chemical attack is highly unlikely and that there are many safeguards in place to prevent such things - this article is in no way intended to scare anyone or cause even an ounce of worry. However, the following tips can be useful in other situations, like an inadvertent chemical spill or fire in a chemical plant.
There are many different chemicals that can be weaponized, and sometimes people confuse them with biological agents because they seem similar. For example, Sarin gas (a chemical) is entirely different than Anthrax (a biological agent), but they're both extremely scary and both can be deadly.
The most important thing you need to know, whether you're under some sort of chemical attack or you're an innocent bystander at a chemical spill, is to get as far away from the substance as you can - IMMEDIATELY. That doesn't mean to stand and gawk for a few minutes and then meander off into the sunset; that means you need to high-tail it out of the area quick, fast, and in a hurry.
As you're leaving, cover your mouth and nose with any uncontaminated piece of material that you can find. If you've got to pull your shirt up like a bandit, do it. The more that filters the air you're sucking in, the better. After you've covered your own airways, then it's okay to help cover others - but not one second before.
Call 911 as soon as you have gotten a safe distance between you and the threat. There are experts who will rush out to the scene, cordon it off, and begin cleaning up the toxic hazards. They'll identify what it was and later they can advise you of any special treatment you may need as a result.
Many agents are more deadly if inhaled; that's why it's so important to filter any air you're taking in if you are anywhere near a potentially toxic substance. Other ways that chemical agents can be deadly include skin contact and ingestion, so DO NOT touch anything that may be contaminated and DO NOT drink from a local water source or eat any food that may have been in contact with the chemical.
If you suspect someone is a victim of a chemical agent, use your head before you rush on the scene trying to help. You need to look before you leap, because you could be running headlong into your own demise. Here's what to look for as you survey the scene:
1. Look far and wide for puddles or globs of a potential chemical agent. If those puddles were what hurt the victim (and they very well may have been) you can't risk coming into contact with them yourself. Likewise, look for dust; obviously, if you see piles of powder surrounding the victim, you won't go anywhere near them - but sometimes it only takes a little bit of an agent to do some serious damage.
2. Look at the victim from a safe distance. If they seem to be covered in chemical burns, chances are that whatever caused them is still in the area. If they're in the middle of a seizure, they've very recently inhaled something horrible (and probably deadly) - so that's probably still in the area too.
You need to call for help and get professional advice before you attempt to assist anyone who may have been the victim of a chemical agent - you won't be any good to them if you're lying beside them dying.
Chemical weapons are scary. Trust me; you really don't want to know what they're capable of. However, if you happen to be in the vicinity of a chemical attack, knowing what to do can help save your life and the lives of others.