Data Fusion and GIS - Detecting Chemical and Biological Attacks

By Kevin Coleman

Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) is considered a poor man's nuke. They are cheap, easy to manufacture and are considered weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Chemical and biological weapons use some of the most dangerous chemicals and diseases known to man.These weapons are at the forefront of terrorist and military threats to world safety and world peace. Many believe that it is no longer a question of if a chem/bio terrorism attack will occur against America it is merely a question of when. The number of countries with biological weapons is rising. The cost of stockpiling biological weapons is small when compared with the cost of achieving nuclear capability - thus the poor man's nuke. With nearly two dozen countries that are known to have biological weapons, the threat is very real.

Countries with Biological Weapons

North Korea
South Africa
United States
United Kingdom

But what if a bio terrorism attack took place on U.S.soil today? Are we equipped to handle it? According to the National Association of Counties and County & City Health Officials survey (January 2003) of over 500 health departments, only 3% felt they were prepared for a bio terrorism attack. An astonishing 78% were less than half way complete in their preparations.

The anthrax cases of 2001 should serve as a wake-up message and an educational opportunity for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It clearly points to the possibility of a future bio terrorist attack.While chem/bio weapons of mass destruction have had increased attention, our ability to detect and alert the public to such an attack is woefully inadequate.A direct attack by a terrorist organization with the intent on inflicting panic, infection, and death would result in significant loss of life and mass disruption within the affected area.

In March of 2003 the BBC report modeled a biological attack on a city of 10 million with 1 kilo-gram of anthrax. The result of the attack was an estimated 123,000 deaths. Even with every individual exposed receiving proper treatment there is this high a number of fatalities. If you recall the limited anthrax attack in 2001, 5 of the 11 people who inhaled anthrax died even after they received critical care. Keep in mind anthrax occurs naturally. Science and technology has created the ability to weaponize anthrax and make it much more lethal.

In past articles, we presented new and unique technologies that can and are being deployed to detect a release of a chemical or biological agent. However, it is impossible to protect every area of every city within the America. So if a chemical or biological agent were released, how soon could it be detected and would we be able to respond quick enough to contain and limit the number of people exposed?

Biological and chemical weapons exhibit many distinct characteristics. These characteristics are what create challenges in the identification and tracking of chemical and biological attacks. In order to understand the challenges in detecting and tracking these attacks we need to first understand the basics of chemical and biological weapons.

Chemical weapons are NOT gasses, as they are frequently called.Chemical weapons are organic and inorganic chemical substances.These substances are harmful to most if not all living things.An effective chemical attack would use chemicals that are extremely toxic to people in small quantities. There are several different types of chemical agents.Each agent works with its own unique characteristics, but are the same in one way. In high enough concentration, they will all kill humans. There are four main categories of chemical agents:

  • Nerve Agents
  • Vesicants
  • Blood Agents
  • Chocking agents
All four classes of agents are extremely lethal and all are a very painful way to die.Keep in mind that many other deadly chemicals are used and stored in our nation's industrial facilities, and attacks on these facilities could create a toxic release into the atmosphere exposing the general population.
  • Nerve Agents: These are agents such as VX, Sarin, Soman, and Tabun. The agent causes severe convulsions, drooling, involuntary defecation and/or urination, running nose, and eventually, the agent causes the heart to stop and the victim dies.
  • Vesicants (Blister Agents): These are agents such as Sulfur-Mustards, Phosgene Oxime, Nitrogen-Mustards, Lewisite, Mustard-Lewisite, etc.Vesicants are all common in the fact that they burn and blister the lungs, skin, and eyes. The victims are killed when the blisters are created in the lungs.When the blisters burst, they fill the lungs with fluid, and the victim drowns in the fluid.
  • Blood Agents: These are agents like Cyanogen Chloride and Hydrogen Cyanide.They act quickly to poison the blood, and within about five minutes coma and convulsions precede death of the victim.
  • Choking Agents: These are agents such as Ammonia, Chlorine, and Phosgene.These agents cause damage to the lungs. The lungs fill with fluid and the victim drowns, much like vesicants.
    Biological weapons can be broken into three specific types - bacteria, viruses, or toxins. Many of these naturally occurring diseases have been modified or weaponized to increase their lethality. The most commonly discussed biological agents are Anthrax, Ebola, Botulin Bacteria, and Smallpox.
    • Anthrax: Anthrax is a bacteria in a spore form that is very durable. If the spores or bacteria get into your lungs, they reproduce and create a toxin that can be fatal.
    • Ebola Virus: The Ebola Virus takes about a week to kill the victim and spreads through direct contact. It is a widely recognized due to recent outbreaks and in two recent books.
    • Botulin Bacteria: Botulin bacteria produce the botulin toxin, and this toxin is deadly to people in incredibly small quantities (as little as a billionth of a gram).The toxin attacks the nerve cells and cause muscle contractions and paralysis.
    • Smallpox: Smallpox is a virus.It was a major killer until it was controlled with vaccinations in the 20th century.It has been eradicated; but the fear that terrorists could release new strains remains very high. These agents are easy of manufacture, have a quick incubation period, are resistance to treatment, have easy methods of dispersal, and are very lethal and contagiousness.
    A Chem/Bio Attack
    In the previous sections we listed several of the most-feared chemical and biological agents.There are dozens of others that are less well known, either because they are not as toxic or not as easy to spread. There are three ways to spread a chemical or biological agent so that it would infect a large number of people:
    • Through the air
    • Through a municipal water supply
    • Through the food supply
    The most-feared scenario is through the air. An air-born attack could expose a substantial number of victims in a single event. An air-born attack could be accomplished by any of several techniques. Here are the most common techniques that could be used in an air-born release of chem/bio attacks.
    • A bomb/missile explodes, spreading the chemical or biological agent over a wide area.
    • A crop-duster or other aircraft sprays the agent over a city.
    • A vehicle drives through the city spraying a fine mist along city streets in crowded areas.
    • Small bombs or aerosol canisters are released in crowded areas like subways or sports arenas.
    Regardless of the mechanism of attack, the delay between exposure and the appearance of symptoms will increase the difficulty in the identification of the initial point of release. In addition, secondary exposure due to cross contamination caused by people moving into and out of the initial point of release, will create noise in the data and false leads and theories about the attack. In addition the secondary exposure could cloud causality distribution patterns that may obscure the method of dissemination. But the root issue that needs to be addressed is the identification of symptoms by medical professionals and emergency medical service personnel. The medical reporting systems in place today are rarely real time and typically do not have the intelligent pattern matching capabilities to easily identify potential chem/bio attacks.

    With many of the chem/bio weapons symptoms come on rapidly and emergency responders and our healthcare providers are now aware and can readily recognize symptoms of chem/bio exposure. The real issue is when chem/bio weapons are used that have a delay before symptoms appear. With a highly mobile workforce and normally occurring events like wind, rain, vehicle traffic and other transfer mechanisms, the spread of an undetected chem/bio attack could go on for days before detection occurred. Add to that the disconnected reporting systems within our healthcare network and that delay in accurately detecting and tracking a chem/bio attack could drag into weeks. Even if the reporting systems were real time and integrated, differences in the way patient profiles are collected required advanced techniques (such as data fusion) in order to uncover obscure links and patterns.

    A simple definition of data fusion is the seamless integration of data from disparate sources in widely varying formats.They must be integrated across data collection "platforms" or "systems" and geographic boundaries, and blend the information so that the differences in coverage, treatment of symptoms, character and artifacts of data collection methods are eliminated.At present, this is a desirable and all but unattainable goal when it comes to rapidly detecting a release of chem/bio agent.

    Leveraging advanced pattern recognition techniques and data fusion tied into a GIS system is a powerful tool in the fight against the impacts of a chem/bio attack. With the numerous methods of direct and indirect transfer of chem/bio agents the cross contamination and secondary exposures causing noise in the data and confusion when attempting to pinpoint the point of origin will require advanced filtering and pattern matching capabilities. Rapid identification of the point of origin is critical so persons exposed to the agent can be identified, contacted and treated. The sooner treatment starts the better their chances are of survival.

    Chemical and biological attacks can be detected early by watching for signs of dispersal, dead insects/animals, sick and injured people, etc. Clustering of victims and GIS mapping can assist the government in their abilities to identify all those exposed and treat them. The ability to collect information from the highly fragmented systems within our healthcare systems is a fundamental requirement if we are to track chem/bio attacks. The more location specific data that can be integrated into a GIS mapping capability, the quicker we could identify a bio terrorism or chemical attack. Data fusion techniques can be applied to incomplete data sets and disparate sources of information to further enhance the accuracy and efficiency of identification and tracking of exposed victims. A high tech Emergency Alert System (EAS) may also be of value in alerting you to an attack.Immediate alerts will help lesson the number of people exposed primarily and in secondary contaminant transfers. Several components for a completely integrated detection, tracking and alerting system exist today. The cost for such a system would be very high; but, the benefits would be equally as great!

    Published Saturday, August 16th, 2003

    Written by Kevin Coleman

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