Dr. Marc answers readers’ questions every other week. To send a query, click here.
Dear Dr. Marc,
I live in New York City. Many people I know are concerned about new risks associated with riding the subway. Would a gas mask with an NBC filter be useful in the event of an unforeseen terrorist attack?
New York City
I can’t tell you the risks are zero. What I can tell you is that the hype and fear far outweigh the actual danger. As you may know, sarin gas deployed in the Japanese subway in 1995 killed only twelve people while panicking millions. Panic has historically injured far more people than any terrorist agent. In terms of gas masks, yes, technically, with the proper filter, a gas mask would protect your lungs against chemical agents including nerve gas. But without a full protective suit, these agents could still seep into your skin. But again, you should understand that the risk to you as an individual of that occurring is very small. The means of deployment that a terrorist has available would result in a small-scale event with a lot of shock value, but in all likelihood, would not have the delivery system to cause mass injuries or deaths. And, in a way, gas masks may do far more harm than good by sending the wrong message that something might be in the offing–which feeds the destructive wartime propaganda that the media and the government sends out that we must all be on alert all the time. Gas masks can also harm you if not worn properly.
Dear Dr. Marc,
I live in New York and want to know if there is any way to protect ourselves from chemical or biological attacks. What symptoms would we be able to use to determine if it were a chemical or biological attack as opposed to a normal illness? I was also glad to hear you say that duct tape wasn’t useful in case of an attack. It seemed a ridiculous suggestion, even though I have used duct tape for just about everything else.
New York City
I addressed these issues in detail in my last column and will elaborate in an upcoming print version of the magazine. In the meantime, let me say that I believe that the risks to the individual are far too low for you or anyone to be thinking in terms of self-diagnosis and recognizing symptoms. But since you asked the question, chemical agents that may cause headaches, burning in the eyes and throat, may overcome a person rapidly. The symptoms of biological agents such as anthrax, the plague, smallpox or ricin come on more slowly over hours and days, but may be difficult to distinguish from a garden-variety flu or pneumonia. But as I tell my medical students, if it seems like the flu, it’s most likely the flu. Your fear has been stoked by the media and the government, but the actual risks are quite low. A terrorist attack would most likely affect a small number of people.