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Chemical agents differ from biological agents in a number of significant ways. To begin with, the onset of symptoms may occur instantly or within a few hours of exposure, whereas biological agents can take up to weeks to present. Chemical agents are synthesized through some type of industrial process, whereas biological agents are either self-replicating microbes or compounds formed by these microbes such as botulinum toxin (produced by Clostridia; see Chapter 17) or ricin, a natural metabolic product of the castor bean plant, Ricinus communis. Chemical agents act by disrupting normal metabolic function at varying sites throughout the body according to the type of agent used and are categorized into roughly eleven categories (Table 21–1). From a weapons standpoint, not all chemical agents pose a threat as a likely choice for terrorism or as a WMD. In large part this is because of logistical or technical considerations—some require too much volume for easy concealment, others pose difficulties of dispersal, and others require such quantity as to be impractical for small, poor groups with limited technical or financial resources.

Table 21–1 Comprehensive List of Designated Chemical Weapons

One of the considerations that makes chemical weapons a legitimate threat is the sheer number of chemicals that, if used in the “right” way, could function as a weapon. These agents could also be used in combination, potentially increasing their potency, or altering physical properties such as to volatility in order to augment abortion. The most likely means of disseminating chemical agents are sprays, or through detonation of explosives. Spraying distributes the chemicals more efficiently. They are often classified according to how well they dissipate once released, that is, persistent or nonpersistent agents.

The signs and symptoms for many of the agents are nonspecific and may be difficult ...

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