Bioterrorism, Chemical, Radiological, and Nuclear Emergencies

Although unlikely, manmade or naturally occurring emergencies involving biological agents, chemical agents, radiation, or nuclear attack are always a possibility. Working with federal, state, and local agencies, the Office of Public Health Preparedness Branch (PHP) acts to safeguard the public in case of such incidents through emergency planning and in-state coordination of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS).

SNS is a federally-run system of getting crucial medication to a local population in the event of a bioterrorism incident, chemical or radiological emergency, a major natural disaster, or a pandemic. These life-saving medications or vaccines are quickly distributed through point of dispensing sites, or PODS, to large numbers of people during a public health emergency. To find out more about PODs, please visit our Strategic National Stockpile page.


A bioterrorism attack is the deliberate release of biological agents to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants. Biological agents can be spread through the air, through water, or in food, and may be used by terrorists because they can be extremely difficult to detect.

What are biological agents?

Biological agents are viruses, bacteria, or other germs that can be found naturally occurring in the environment. Some bioterrorism agents, like the smallpox virus, can be spread from person to person and some, such as anthrax, cannot.

The following are common biological agents of concern for bioterrorism:

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Viral Hemorrhagic Fever (VHF)
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More information about these bioterrorism threats can be found on their respective disease pages: anthrax, botulism, Brucellosis, plague, smallpox, and tularemia.

Chemical Emergencies

A chemical emergency is the release of a hazardous material that has the potential for harming people’s health. Chemical releases can be unintentional, as in the case of an industrial accident, or intentional, as in the case of a terrorist attack.

What are chemical agents?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a chemical emergency as occurring “when a hazardous chemical has been released and the release has the potential for harming people’s health.”

Some chemical agents are manmade and some can be found in nature. Many hazardous chemical agents are used in industry, while others have been developed specifically for military use in warfare, such as sarin and sulfur mustard (“mustard gas”). The following are common chemical agents of concern:

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Sulfur Mustard (“Mustard Gas”)
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Radiological Emergencies

A radiological emergency is the accidental or deliberate release of radiation, a form of energy that can come from natural sources like the sun or uranium in soil, and also from manmade sources such as x-ray machines and microwave ovens. Although people are exposed to very small amounts of radiation every day, nuclear or radiation emergencies could expose people to large amounts of radiation that can endanger their lives.

What could cause a radiological emergency?

A radiation emergency could result from a nuclear power plant accident, the explosion of a nuclear device, or a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb is an explosive, like dynamite, that contains radioactive materials. Blasts from these explosions can cause deaths, serious injuries, and property damage.

Exposure to very large doses of radiation may cause death within a few days or months; exposure to lower doses of radiation may lead to an increased risk of developing cancer or other adverse health effects years in the future.

In a radiation emergency, officials will monitor the amount of radiation and advise the public what to do. The DOH will oversee clean-up and removal of any dangerous materials.

To learn more about radiation emergencies, visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Download brochures about radiation emergencies:

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Nuclear Attack

Although extremely unlikely, a nuclear attack can occur if an enemy state or terrorists deliberately fire a missile armed with a nuclear weapon at a city, military base, etc., or transport a nuclear weapon into such an area in order to cause mass casualties. While recent developments in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have made more people aware of such threats, nuclear preparedness has long been a component of all-hazards preparedness and emergency officials have included it as part of their planning for many years.

A nuclear attack would be devastating. However, knowledge and preparation ahead of time may increase the likelihood of surviving the effects of the blast, radiation, and other health threats associated with such an incident. If an attack is imminent, everyone must Get Inside, Stay Inside, and Stay Tuned. To learn more about what you should do before, during, and after a nuclear attack, go to our current issues and advisories page on nuclear preparedness.

Below are links to other agencies and resources that provide useful information about nuclear preparedness.

Last reviewed January 2019