Chemical, Biological, Radiation, Nuclear, or Explosive Hazards


Every disaster deployment has some type of chemical, biological, radiation, nuclear, or explosion (CBRNE) hazard. CBRNE hazards include more than military weapons; they also include endemic diseases, epidemics, industrial chemicals, explosion hazards, pollution, and terrorist threats. Planning for CBRNE hazards and training to mitigate them greatly reduces risks to Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) staff in the field.

The Foreign Disasters and Hazardous Substances Database was developed for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) staff to assist in identifying CBRNE hazards before deployment. The database comprises almost half a million records of CBRNE hazards world wide. The database is available via a secure connection to the Internet and also in PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) format. Check the database for hazards in the area of operations well before deployment.

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) maintains a CBRNE hazards program. The program includes training for USAID staff and partners, a cache of safety supplies and equipment at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia, the Foreign Disasters and Hazardous Substances Database mentioned previously, and field surveys of disaster zones to assist USAID staff and partners in responding to disasters involving CBRNE hazards. Contact the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance/ Washington (OFDA/W) Operations Division to obtain these services and supplies for your team. CBRNE hazards can often be addressed through good planning and training. Do not be a victim; get help with disasters involving CBRNE hazards.

A. Chemical Hazards

Chemicals can pose several types of hazards. Corrosive chemicals such as acids and bases burn the eyes, skin, and lungs. Flammable chemicals cause thermal burns and release toxic smoke. Toxic chemicals cause poisoning or infections. Reactive chemicals can start fires, release toxic or explosive vapors, or explode when coming in contact with other materials. Many chemicals present more than one type of hazard. Consider all these hazards when evaluating chemicals. The International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS) has developed brief fact sheets, called International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSCs), on many of the most common chemicals. ICSCs can be viewed on the IPCS Web site (…). Information about military chemical agents and other hazards can be found at the Virtual Naval Hospital Web site at

B. Biological Hazards

Biological hazards include bacteria, viruses, rickettsia, and parasites. Bacteria are one-celled organisms that cause infections or release toxic chemicals inside the body. These organisms include anthrax, plague, salmonella, shigella, and a host of other food- and water-borne pathogens, as well as most of the common biological weapons. Bacteria can usually be treated with antibiotics during the early stages of infection; therefore, understanding the types of common bacterial infections in the disaster zone can help a team prepare to maintain their own health as well as aid in restoring the health of the population in the affected area.

Viruses are simple strands of RNA or DNA surrounded by a protein sheath. They invade the body’s cells and use these cells as nutrients to reproduce. Viral hazards in disaster zones include arthropod-borne viruses, such as yellow fever, and viruses transmitted from one person to another, such as smallpox, HIV, and hemorrhagic fever viruses. Viruses such as smallpox and Venezuelan equine encephalitis have been investigated as bio-logical weapons. Some viruses can be prevented by vaccination, and many developing countries in tropical areas of Latin America and Africa require yellow fever vaccinations for people entering the country. See CDC’s Traveler’s Health Web site at… for recommended vaccinations. OFDA staff can get vaccinations at Federal Occupational Health clinics in many cities in the United States, including in Washington, DC.

Rickettsial diseases include syphilis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Q fever. They can often be treated with antibiotics.

Parasites include malaria, schistosome snails, pinworms, and tapeworms. Malaria can be prevented by obtaining the appropriate antimalarial prophylactic medicine before deployment and taking it as directed. Infections from snails and worms can be prevented by avoiding sluggish streams and rivers and by thoroughly cooking food.

C. Radiation and Nuclear Hazards

Radiation and nuclear hazards, which include nuclear power plants, industrial radiation devices, and nuclear weapons, result from energy and particles released from the nuclei of atoms. The energy released during a nuclear explosion, which comes from energy released from electron shells around the nuclei, can be more than 1 million times greater than that of a conventional explosion. Radiation includes alpha radiation (two protons and two neutrons released from the nucleus), beta radiation (small positively- or negatively-charged particles released from the nucleus), gamma and x-rays (energy), and neutrons.

Time of exposure, distance from the source of exposure, and level of shielding are the three major variables in determining injury from radiation. Alpha radiation travels only a few inches and can be stopped by a piece of paper, but can cause lung cancer if inhaled. Beta radiation can travel up to 2 meters, is absorbed by light-weight shielding materials such as aluminum, and can burn the skin. Gamma and x-rays travel several hundred meters, can penetrate the entire body, and damage cell tissues and DNA. Acute radiation sickness can result from large doses or radiation, and cancers can result from a broad range of exposures. Hot spots for nuclear explosions include India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. Nuclear power plant hazards are greatest at plants designed and built by the former Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

A radiation incident can create public panic and potentially result in a large displaced population seeking alternate shelter and health screening for potential exposure, which may create an additional healthcare burden on the local mental health and public health resources. Long-term effects could include ecological damage, loss of food and agricultural production, and human resettlement.

D. Explosive Hazards

Conventional explosive hazards commonly encountered by USAID staff include unexploded ordnance, landmines, and improvised explosive devices such as those made from commercial fertilizers. Most commercial explosives are used around extraction mines. In addition to trauma and burns, explosives can pose longer-term hazards to survivors, including infections, kidney damage from blast pressure waves, and adverse mental health effects.

Millions of landmines are still emplaced in nearly 60 countries around the world. Check with the U.S. Embassy’s Regional Security Officer to learn more about known minefields before departing for your assignment.

Last updated: May 17, 2017