The Government Speaks: Terrorism and other Public Health Emergencies

Terrorism and other Public Health EmergenciesToday, I learned that the U.S. department of Health and Human Services, in their infinite wisdom, decided to publish a “field guide for media” so reporters will know what to do in case of a terrorist attack.

Why the student paper of a 3,500-student college in the middle of Nassau County, received a copy is beyond my comprehension.

But receive we did! A glossy, colorful book, almost 100 pages long, just chock-full of useful information on how reporters in the field can survive attacks of the biological, chemical, or nuclear variety.

I’ve heard that the effects of tear gas can be mitigated by pouring Coke into one’s eyes. (Smartass in the room: “What about Pepsi?” Yeah, you know who you are. I’m sure Pepsi works too, now shut up.) But, well, tear gas is usually used on protestors, and journalists aren’t usually allowed to protest on their days off, so let’s see what handy tips the guv’mint has to offer about other chemicals that might be unleashed on us when we’re minding our own business in Baghdad. (Also, tear gas is not even mentioned in this book. It must not be destructive enough to pique the Bush administration’s attention.)

Under “Nerve Agents” we are told that the signs of exposure are “seizures, drooling, eye irritation, sweating or twitching, blurred vision, muscle weakness.” The next column over suggests that you “leave the affected area. Immediately remove clothing, place in a plastic bag, and shower or wash. Seek medical care if exposed.”

How am I supposed to get to the shower if I’m twitching on the ground in the middle of a seizure? And how will a shower help if most nerve gases will kill in one to ten minutes?

Okay, so the chemical reference chart is a wee bit understated. How about biological weapons?

Remember anthrax? This handy chart says that it’s not contagious–what great news! It also mentions that if infected, symptoms will begin to show themselves after seven days. These symptoms include blisters, nausea, flu-like symptoms, and severe breathing problems, depending on the type of anthrax contracted. Unfortunately, the chart fails to mention death as a possible symptom of an anthrax infection. And if an infected person doesn’t start antibiotics before symptoms begin, he or she is pretty much dead.

Every other fatal disease listed under “biological agents” neglects to mention the part about the disease being fatal. Also, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as botulism! This sure is educational!

Here’s my absolute favorite part: The orange section covers “radiation emergencies.” If a nuclear plant is attacked, the government says a “radiation release [is] unlikely–power plants are built to sustain extensive damage.” Right, I believe that. If terrorists are going to blow up or hack into a nuclear plant you can damn well bet that they’ll blow it up well enough to cause an explosion, or hack it bad enough that Chernobyl will look like an itty-bitty microwave.

Then the tour de force: The “nuclear weapon” section. The government is at least honest here, dedicating twenty whole words to the gruesome injuries and diseases you might contract if you’re near a bomb when it goes off. In another chart, we’re told that a nuclear weapon “creates a large fireball that would vaporize everything within it.”

And yet–in the event of a bomb going off, here is what you should do:

  • Do not look toward the explosion.
  • Seek shelter behind any shield or in a basement.
  • Lie on the ground and cover your head.

Last I checked, this was 2007, and “duck and cover” got real old almost half a century ago. But the government has spoken!

I feel safer already. Don’t you?


  1. chriscombs says:

    A large metropolitan daily newspaper that I may or may not work for has at least one of these wondrous Technicolor guides collecting dust next to the color laser printer of its photo department. I imagine it’d provide at least a few months of (uncomfortable) bum swabbery–not that we ever lack for that at a newspaper.

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